Like many, pianist Richard Dowling was first introduced to the music of Scott Joplin while watching the 1973 movie “The Sting,” which starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
The movie, which would go on to win seven Oscars, including best picture, featured Joplin’s “Solace,” “The Entertainer,” “The Easy Winners,” “Pine Apple Rag” and “Gladiolus Rag.”
At the time, Dowling was a 9-year-old piano student in Houston. When he heard “The Entertainer,” he begged his teacher to let him learn the piece.
One trip to the music store later, and Dowling was the proud owner of the “inch-and-a-half-thick” “Complete Works of Scott Joplin.” He then learned “The Entertainer,” “Maple Leaf Rag” and other works by the man known as the “King of Ragtime.”
Years later, Dowling’s love for Joplin’s music has grown exponentially, to the point where it’s taken up the majority of his focus over the last few years.
In January 2015, Dowling performed an all-Joplin recital in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico as part of the Pro Musica recital series.
In preparation, he expanded his Joplin repertoire to include about 24 works.
The concert sold out and the audience, as Dowling said, went crazy.
“I knew right then that I had something special,” he said in an email. “On the plane ride back to New York I decided to learn Joplin’s complete works (53 rags, waltzes, marches and cakewalks) in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of his death in 2017 and his 150th birthday in 2018 (Nov. 23, 1868).”
On April 1, 2017, 100 years to the day since the musician’s death, Dowling performed “The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin” across two concerts at Carnegie Hall.
“I call performing ‘The Complete,’ the ‘Joplinathon,’ ” Dowling said. “It’s like running a marathon in that it takes a great deal of physical stamina and mental concentration over a nearly four-hour period of time.”
It won’t quite be a “Joplinathon,” but Dowling’s performances in Spokane and Sandpoint as part of Northwest BachFest, “Great Scott! A Scott Joplin Celebration,” will feature a number of the composer and pianist’s works.
On Saturday, Dowling will perform “Great Scott!” at Barrister Winery in Spokane. He’ll take the show to Pend d’Oreille Winery Tasting Room in Sandpoint on Sunday.
On Tuesday, Dowling and cellist/Northwest BachFest artistic director Zuill Bailey will team up for “An Evening of Classics for Cello and Piano” at Barrister Winery.
Though Dowling has performed around 100 “Great Scott!” recitals across the country over the past two years, and he’s performed at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Spokane Valley many times, Northwest BachFest marks the Washington state premiere of “Great Scott!”
“I think I probably played a little Joplin/ragtime as encores at my all-classical concerts there,” Dowling said of his Steinway Piano Gallery performances. “I often do that during my ‘legitimate’ all-classical recitals and audiences love it. Ragtime is like having bon-bon candy after a big meal.”
Depending on the presenter or venue’s preference, Dowling can shape “Great Scott!” into anything from a 45-minute concert to a two-hour concert with an intermission.
After so many performances, Dowling has gotten a feel for what audiences want to hear and which of Joplin’s compositions work best during public performances.
One of his goals when planning a “Great Scott!” concert is to mix genres to “make a well-balanced meal” that includes Joplin’s concert waltzes, John Philip Sousa-like marches and country-tinged cakewalks.
No matter the length of the performance, Dowling always includes what he calls “Suite from ‘The Sting,’ ” a medley of Joplin pieces used in the film.
“I put ‘The Entertainer’ at the end of the program for two reasons: 1) After hearing many of Joplin’s other works played beforehand, one has a different impression and better appreciation of ‘The Entertainer,’ and 2) If I put ‘The Entertainer’ at the end of the program, no one will leave early ha ha! They’ll stay to the end to hear their favorite piece. HA!”
Dowling has learned that “Maple Leaf Rag,” which he calls “the very definition of ragtime” and a Joplin masterpiece, is an audience favorite to rival “The Entertainer.”
And though his love for Joplin began with “The Entertainer,” Dowling finds it most satisfying to perform “Solace,” a tango.
“It’s Joplin’s most expressive work, very romantic, wistful, nostalgic, sad,” he said. “I love it very, very much and so does the audience. I use my classical training to bring out the inherent beauty of ‘Solace’ by emphasizing inner voices and using a particular timing to heighten the emotional effect of the work.”
More than 100 years since Joplin’s death, Dowling said the composer’s work is still appreciated because Americana has always been popular and Joplin’s music is American through and through.
He also believes the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and rock music are nearly identical, so even though the genres sound different, people still “get it” when they hear ragtime for the first time.
“This music is a LOT of fun to listen to and to play,” Dowling said. “It’s almost addictive. I always say that ragtime is the best medicine if you’re feeling a bit depressed. It gives you energy and makes you smile. It’s practically impossible to sit still while listening to ragtime!”
Last year, Dowling’s three-CD set, “The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin,” was nominated for the best album notes Grammy.
The set, plus his other ragtime, jazz and classical CDs will be available for sale at his BachFest performances.
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