Adam Swanson, Ragtime Piano
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
Sept. 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
Adam Swanson’s piano recital, Monday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Hall, tracing the roots of American popular music from ragtime to Moss Hart, was like a seven-course dinner consisting of varied colors of cotton candy. Always entertaining but eventually monotonous and unsatisfying.
Swanson, an award-winning interpreter of early 20th century American music, is 25, but already has a wide following, and the audience for a Monday night concert was large and enthusiastic. The composers, especially ragtime giants such as Scott Joplin, could have been better served.
Swanson began the program with “The Entertainer,” made famous by “The Sting, and as expected, was more faithful to the movie than to the original.
It was followed by James Scotts “Frog Legs.” I play “Frog Legs,” just for fun, and Swanson’s arrangement was so gussied up as to be virtually unrecognizable, and way, way too fast.
If one examines a collection of Rags, the indications “slow,” “not fast,” “not too fast,” “tempo di rag,” and “don’t fake,” pop up regularly, barroom pianists having discovered that it is a lot easier, and more tip-producing, to play fast than slow.
A good rag, with its strong syncopated rhythm, characteristic modulations, and clever turns, is a delicate flower, and like the lilies of the field, needs no embellishment.
Joseph Lamb’s ”Bohemia Rag,” which followed, is specifically marked “Not Fast.” I didn’t bring my metronome, but it was well over quarter-note equals 100, as indicated.
The rags were followed by examples of their successors in stride piano, blues, boogie-woogie, 20’s movies and Broadway, concluding with a nice Moss Hart medley.
One of the surprising aspects of the concert was the number of obscure tunes stored in one’s memory bank, never to be recovered until hearing them again many years later. All of the melodies, however, were accompanied by a strong, rhythmical left hand, with melodies and ornaments in the right. While exciting at first, the combination eventually becomes predictable. It has the added disadvantage of blurring the effect of syncopation and leaving no room for error in the embellishments. In Chopin, a rubato style leaves plenty of room for flourishes. With a strict rhythmical style, the slightest change in tempo, to accommodate grace notes and appoggiaturas, becomes glaringly obvious.
Swanson is young and personable, and it is to be hoped that he wiill follow James Scott’s advice: “Don’t Jazz Me—I’m Music,” the title of one of his later Rags.
It will be interesting on Sept. 30 to compare what Richard Dowling does with Joplin in his “Great Scott” recital at Studzinski Hall.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.