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Bolcom: Piano Rags / Spencer Myer

Release Date: 01/20/2017
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30041
Composer:  William Bolcom Performer:  Spencer Myer

This fantastic release is pianist Spencer Myer’s debut album on the Steinway label. For this project, he has chosen a terrific collection of Rags by the eminent American composer William Bolcom. Featuring some of the newest Rags as well as classics, this album displays Bolcom’s ingenious approach to a favorite keyboard medium. This carefully selected collection of Rags includes three of Bolcom’s latest compositions: Estela: Rag Latino, Knockout: A Rag, and The Brooklyn Dodge. The Boston Globe lauded Spencer Meyer for “superb playing” and “poised, alert musicianship.” His orchestral, recital, and chamber music performances have been heard across the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Album Credits: Read more /> Tracks 1-6 and 8-15 recorded May 5-8, 2015 at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia
Tracks 7 & 16 recorded March 29, 2016 at Steinway Hall, New York City
Producer: Dan Merceruio
Engineer: Daniel Shores
Assistant Engineer: Lauren Sturm

Executive Producer: Jon Feidner
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo
Piano Technicians: John Veitch, Lauren Sturm
Pianos: Steinway Model D #590904 (New York) (tracks 1-6, 8-15)
Steinway Model D #519960 (Hamburg) (tracks 7 & 16)

William Bolcom is an artist with a wondrous vision, a man whose musical discoveries pledged to honor mentors (Darius Milhaud, in particular), pre-developed genres (Ragtime) and eclectic rock (Grateful Dead, specifically keyboardist Tom Contstanten.) It was during his stint as faculty member at Queens College (under tutelage of Rudi Blesh) that ignited him to reach into the past and create his own modernistic twist on an earlier beloved theme.

Scott Joplin is the foundation for Mr. Bolcom’s compositions, yet these pieces stretch the spectrum with frequented quirky pokes and jabs of clever dialogue, making the CD a poignant display of ragtime “in the now.” This first-time Spencer Myer release under the Steinway & Sons label is one that will absorb the listener with instantaneous affection.

Though somewhat somber and wistful (with a more optimistic middle section), Mr. Myer’s expression of The Graceful Ghost Rag unfurls with graciousness especially since the work tributes Bolcom’s father. The ensuing Glad Rag captures the Julliard-trained pianist at his brightest while the jaunty effervescence of Raggin’ Rudi conjures the perky music from The Sting.

Frequently, the “ghost” beckons as Bolcom’s musical protagonist, each one skittering about but with contrasting temperament. Mr. Myer dispenses these wispy formations with introspective coloring…that’s what he does especially well: a raucous “Poltergeist” ghost and a capricious, gauzy “Dream Shadows” ghost are a few examples showing that there’s personality in these wraiths. Clever use of the middle sostenuto pedal and wood tapping (ref: Rossini’s Il signor Bruschino) helps add blustery dashes inside the Knockout Rag while the penultimate Rag Latino finds hints of Leonard Bernstein creeping its way into the score.

One of the highlights is the four-movement The Garden of Eden with its sparkly detail, depicting what one would expect to hear during a silent film. Spencer Myer quickly sets the mood and effectively grasps the Bolcom dynamics in this nearly 20 minute melodramatic work…a stand-alone knockout piece.

There’s plenty of variety in “Piano Rags”, one which deserves a good listen. And while Bolcom’s music reaches beyond expectant Joplin, Spencer Myer is there to assist by carefully fashioning with thought and heart. Highly recommended.


After ragtime music enjoyed a revival of popularity in the 1960s, American composer William Bolcom contributed some new pieces to the genre. It’s putting things too strongly to say, as the graphics here do, that these works “would organically interweave American popular music cultures into the fabric of concert music for decades to come”; in fact, these delightful pieces are underrepresented in concert and on recordings, and this recording by pianist Spencer Myer is welcome. Myer rightly makes the pieces into concert works, not showboat nostalgia, but he avoids the rhythmically denatured sound of Joshua Rifkin’s Scott Joplin recordings. Bolcom approached classic piano ragtime in a variety of ways. He wrote pieces that approximated the models of Joplin and others (most of these are denoted by the title “Classic Rags,” although these are not mere imitations). He wrote rags in programmatically related series. He expanded Joplin’s harmonic vocabulary with elements drawn from Chopin and other composers. And, fascinatingly, he wrote pieces with traditional melodic and harmonic material that fool with register and attack as a serialist composer might have. Especially if you have a bit of familiarity with classic ragtime, you might sample Classic Rags “II: Epitaph,” a lovely tribute to Creole composer Louis Chauvin, whose music for the most part was never written down and has been lost. Steinway & Sons, working in the Sono Luminus studios in Virginia, achieves an appropriate acoustic. This is an essential item for ragtime collections, and highly enjoyable for anybody.

-- AllMusic Guide

Scott Joplin might have been the first name in piano rags, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Bolcom reinvigorated the form in the later 20th century around the time “The Entertainer” sparked new interest. Like the nu tango masters, Bolcom built on the form as oppsoed to encase it in amber. Bolcom is nostalgia to Myer, a brilliant pianist that knows to how hold the center stage spotlight on his own quite well. Revisiting rags that hold the spirit of Joplin but were taken to the next level of the game, a walk down Myer’s memory lane is quite a memorable one indeed. A subtle but deeply reaching set that is not to be ignored. Well done.

-- MidWest Record

In the minds of many, ragtime music begins and ends with Scott Joplin. But in reality, ragtime music emerged before Joplin and continued after him, most notably in the work of 20th-century rag composer William Bolcom. Bolcom’s music extends the ragtime tradition both rhythmically and harmonically: in these pieces you’ll hear the traditional syncopations of ragtime music pushed further, and the straightforward diatonic harmonic structures of 19th-century rags expanded chromatically without ever leaving tonality behind. Bolcom’s wit and melodic inventiveness are a delight throughout, and pianist Spencer Myer plays them with audible affection and pleasure. Highly recommended to all collections.

-- CD Hot List

"On his latest CD, William Bolcom Piano Rags, released on the Steinway Label, pianist Spencer Myer breathes stylish flair into sixteen of Bolcom’s rags. From the first track to the last, the pianist presents each work with the perfect combination of the cerebral and the heartfelt. The recording is a wonderful addition to the ragtime discography, and with Jed Distler’s informative liner notes, it’s also a great tribute to the composer."

-- Cleveland Classical

Collections of William Bolcom’s rags are few but welcome, especially when they’re performed, as here, not with classical restraint and strict phrasing, but with stylish flexibility and warmth. Dynamic accents and agogics give numbers like Raggin’ Rudi a real strut. Technical assurance is present in spades: The Serpent’s Kiss, with its fast tempo and wild stride, never sounds challenging. On the other end of the scale, Graceful Ghost and that most Lamb-like of Bolcom’s rags, Epithalamium, are given all the space they need for their lyricism to make itself felt. The evenness and delicacy of the chain of descending figures in the latter rag’s third strain is particularly welcome, and makes a fine contrast to the big-hearted tune of the fourth strain.

If I have a complaint at all, it is that very occasionally Myer will take part of a repeat strain in such a way as to emphasize a bass line when it possesses little intrinsic interest. An example of this occurs at one point in The Graceful Ghost’s second strain, where the interest lies instead in the harmonic progressions and the theme’s chromatic elements. On the other hand, his pause before the fourth strain, and his lengthened statement of the bare B? in the bass before the main theme repeats, are handled very nicely indeed. And his penchant for finding details to vary in repeat strains more often than not brings out attractive details in this music.

Myer has made a reasonable selection on this album, mixing the well known (Graceful Ghost, The Garden of Eden series, Poltergeist, Glad Rag, Incineratorag) and others that are less frequently heard in concert and on record (Fields of Flowers, The Brooklyn Dodge, Epithalamium). Only one was new to me, Estela: Rag Latino, a charming, typical Bolcom rag, sliding in and out of bitonality, playing sly rhythmic games, unearthing passages of drama or tenderness where least expected. Like the others, it reveals a musical mind that shape-changes intellectual games into exercises of inspired craft.

The sound is excellent. If you’re a fan of Bolcom’s rags, this should certainly be on your agenda for purchase.

-- Fanfare

This is one gorgeously played and engineered album, and the music is sophisticated and charming. William Bolcom has done for rags what Chopin did for polonaises, staying true to the rhythms of a popular dance while adding to it the touch of a skilled composer and harmonist.

‘Raggin’ Rudi’ starts with an atonal flourish that quickly gives way to a traditional, very diatonic, and very catchy theme. ‘Fields of Flowers’ opens with a melody in thirds reminiscent of a Scarlatti sonata before the main theme comes in with its swung eighth notes and Hawaiian feel. Then there’s ‘Epithalamium’, which yanks apart and reassembles those classic rhythms into something like a Picasso painting where the viewer looks at a person from several angles at once.

The Garden of Eden is a quartet of rags. ‘Old Adam’ is a swaggering number with a few tender phrases for contrast; Myer does an amazing job at making the big-footed left-hand lines sound weighty but not ponderous. ‘The Eternal Feminine’ has both the beautiful blush of innocence and a marvelous strength of heart. Jittery repeated notes and a sense of chromatic drama mark man’s reaction to ‘The Serpent’s Kiss’, while slithering—and then steely—thirds depict the serpent itself. ‘Through Eden’s Gates’ is melancholy and tender.

‘Poltergeist’, the second of the famous Ghost Rags, often requires the listener to provide ragtime’s steady pulse with his imagination, much like a radio play that leaves the appearance of the characters and settings to the audience. ‘Knockout’ has some deliciously off-kilter rhythms and requires the pianist to rap on various parts of the piano; its pungently harmonized center section, relatively free rhythmically, acts as a nice palate cleanser. While we’re on the subject, the only warning I might give about this program is that, for those of us who enjoy ragtime on occasion but aren’t all-out enthusiasts, it might work best in smaller portions or as intelligent background music.

‘Dream Shadows’, another of the Ghost Rags, is as shifting and surreal as its name implies, but the ragtime style keeps it grounded. ‘Estela: Rag Latino’ uses some fascinating mixed meters and sharp dissonances to make one spicy dish. The lighthearted ‘Brooklyn Dodge (A James P. Johnson Stride)’ ends the recital with a touch of stride piano—tenths in the left hand instead of octaves, thicker chords, tremolos, and jazzier harmonies.

Spencer Myer’s playing is truly outstanding; his dynamics, phrasing, and use of rubato are all well considered, and he’s sensitive to every compositional and structural detail. His tone is gloriously warm and burnished, and the acoustics flatter him with their evenness and clarity; the piano is represented perfectly. Get this one!

-- American Record Guide

Of the many composers who have sought to blur the lines between 'serious' and 'popular' music, few (if any) have achieved their aim with the glee, panache, and sheer compositional élan of Bolcom. And nowhere in his output is this demonstrated to better effect than in his delicious series of piano rags, combining a sense of absolute authenticity with sparkling humour, originality and pianistic bravura. This immensely appealing selection blends old favourites - the quirky, clever 'Ghost Rags', the brilliantly irreverent 'Garden of Eden' - with three more recent additions to the canon, which were added to the original published edition of 22 pieces in recent years. The three 'new' works are cast in the same mold as the familiar ones, are worthy to stand alongside them, and alone are worth the price of admission even if you're already familiar with the rest of the disc's contents.

-- Records International

The peak era of Ragtime was 1895–1918. The genre was known for its unusual (at the time) syncopated tempo structure developed from African music…This represented a polyrhythmic modification of the march time popularized by John Phillip Sousa. Early composers included Ernest Hogan, Ben Harvey and of course Scott Joplin. This development would lead to the the founding of stride piano. Joplin’s “Maple Leaf rag” influenced many future composers. The popularity of these 2/4 and 4/4 metered formats waned until a mass commercial revival in the 1970’s. This renaissance was driven by a film The Sting that featuredthe music of Joplin.

One of the influential modern Ragtime artists wasAmerican classical composer William Bolcom. Among his many accomplishments is a cadre of Ragtime compositions, including “The Graceful Ghost Rag” and “Incineratorag”. Pianist Spencer Myer has performed with many symphony orchestras (Indianapolis, Phoenix, Richmond, Santa Fe, New Haven and China). His virtuosity and ability to interpret a wide array of genres has propelled his ascent as a classical performer. He is an in-demand chamber musician. His debut release on Steinway & Sons is William Bolcom Piano Rags Seventy-four minutes of complex Ragtime piecesare interpreted by a graceful, intuitive pianist. The opening number, “The Graceful Ghost King” (one of three Ghost Rags) is exemplary of Myer’s approach. Within this 4:35 intricate performance, he wistfully follows a harmonious melody with subtle hushes and lyrical melodies. His piano technique is flawless. The rhythm is strong but there are quiet interludes. According to the liner notes, “Classic Rags: I. Glad Rag was inspired by Joplin’s opera Treemonisha. The punctuated runs are up tempo, but not rushed. The festive melody develops fluidly through accelerated flourishes and prominent chord striking.

“Raggin’ Rudy” is festive and moves with aggressive techniques. But there are always well-interjected low-key moments that complement perfectly. Switching gears, “Fields Of Flowers” has an unusual blues syncopation (credited to Grateful Dead piano player Tom Constanten) and a carefree fluency with atonal crashes and chord stretching. it is unique Ragtime. “Epithalaium” displays an emotional depth that approximates Broadway vibe. Regardless of time signature, Myer’t timing and phrasing are impeccable. On the second Ghost Rag (“Poltergeist”), he alternates between a jaunty, syncopated feel and shifts to prominent swells. And he is perfect on the slower pieces. “Epitaph For Calvin” has that gentle laconic sway that caresses a melody. Next up is”The Garden Of Eden” in four parts. “Old Adam” has a loping, festive vibe with a chorus that approximates a call and response. “The Eternal Feminine” represents classic Ragtime elegance with internal movements. On “The Serpent’s Kiss”, there is an emphatic line that is evocative of a silent movie score. There are dramatic accents and resounding chords. The final number of this quartet, “Through Eden’s Gates” features dulcet harmonics and a delicate touch.

There are three new Bolcom compositions. (“Knockout: A Rag”, “Estela: “Rag Latino” and “Brooklyn Dodge”) that are bathed in colorful and highly technical patterns. And the earlier works like “Dream Shadows” and “Iconeratorag” underscore’s Myer’s immersion in the styles and contexts Of Ragtime.

Spencer Myer—Bolcom Piano rags is terrific!

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