Ben Sears and Bradford Conner gravitate to centenaries. Witness their recent commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Now the singing masterminds of Boston-based American Classics are giving the same kind of performance tribute to the work of another original, namely African American composer-performer Scott Joplin.
“We have been wanting to do excerpts from ‘Treemonisha’ for years,” Conner recently admitted. Now Conner and his collaborator are doing just that — and beginning a full program with a selection of Joplin’s piano rags — as they celebrate the centenary of the King of Ragtime’s lone opera Friday and Saturday.
“He’s one of our national treasures,” Conner observed. “There’s no one I know that doesn’t like Joplin. He’s a respected composer that’s written masterworks of the genre [ragtime].”
Sears concurred. “We love ragtime and we love Joplin’s work,” Sears said.
American Classics regulars Margaret Ulmer (piano), Jim Dalton (banjo) and Eli Newburger (tuba) will play a generous sample of Joplin’s beloved pieces — including such favorites as “Pine Apple Rag,” “Cascades,” “Solace” and “The Great Crush Collision March.”
Citing Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” — which “swept the country” — as the first of the genre, Conner called it “a benchmark as far as ragtime and popular music are concerned.”
“This guy from Missouri [Joplin],” he continued, “kept writing in the genre and defined the style.” Summing up the composer’s achievement with ragtime, Conner remarked, “The name that is synonymous with the entire movement and genre is Joplin …That’s pretty impressive.”
The Library of Congress clearly agreed in 2002, with its inclusion of a collection of Joplin’s own performances (on piano rolls) in its National Recording Registry.
Also impressive for Conner and Sears is “Treemonisha,” the showpiece of the program. Never fully staged during Joplin’s lifetime (he died in 1917), the work finally received due attention in the 1970s with a performance of excerpts at Lincoln Center (1971), an Afro-American Music Workshop-sponsored two night staged orchestration at Morehouse College (1972) and a full opera production by Houston Grand Opera (1975). Sears suspected that Joplin’s opera “was rejected out of hand because he was black.” Conner praised the work’s then daring championing of education. “He [Joplin] understood that the way out of the wilderness for blacks was education, a pretty radical notion for the time.”
While Sears and Conner are not doing a full concert version of “Treemonisha,” they are trying to give audiences a good sense of the narrative of the three-act work. “The parts we’ve chosen follow the main plot of the story line.”
Set in a former slave community in an isolated forest near Texarkana, where the composer spent his childhood in 1884, the opera focuses on an 18–year-old woman who is taught to read by a white woman. Treemonisha (whose adopting mother Monisha found her under a tree) leads her community against the exploitation of superstition-brandishing conjurers. Eventually her community realizes the value of education and chooses her as their teacher-leader.
The American Classics collaborators have chosen some of the Hub’s finest musical performers to sing key roles in their performance. Anita Murrell will play Treemonisha and Christina DeVaughn Monisha. Merle Perkins, a local veteran singer-actress, will play a friend named Lucy.
Admitting that “The piece as a whole is difficult,” Conner welcomed the opportunity to showcase the opera. “There are exquisite moments,” he said.
Three weeks before the upcoming production of Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha," more than two-dozen teens, ages 13-17 years old, crowd around a black piano in Hibernian Hall. They are awaiting instructions from their director Samuel Martinborough, founder of Mssng Lnks. The students have been rehearsing for an hour and a half and have more than three hours to go before calling it quits for the night.
Heralded as the first grand opera written by a composer of color "Treemonisha" takes place in the late 1800s on a plantation. Treemonisha refuses to accept the superstitions of the community and promotes education as the key to freedom. In lieu of her beliefs, Treemonisha (Anita Murrell) is kidnapped by conjurers and later rescued by Remus (Korland Simmons) whom she teaches to read and write. In the end, the community chooses her as their leader.
Middle schoolers at Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan have wrapped up a two-month grant-funded program of musical and historical enrichment. About 40 students participated in "Emancipation Chronicles," a workshop series led jointly by Opera Boston and Mssng Lnks, a Boston nonprofit that provides vocal training to underserved youth.
The program was made possible by the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Arts Expansion Initiative, developed by BPS and managed by EdVestors, a Boston organization that channels private investment into schools. The initiative, which supplements the $16 million already in the BPS budget for arts, is serving an estimated 5,000 students in some 40 schools this year.
Youngsters prepare for the opening performance of Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha" tomorrow at Hibernian Hall. Story on page 3. More »