One of the pleasures of a new concert season is hearing Margaret Ulmer play ragtime. It’s not just feeling the rhythm—and you do start to sway—Ulmer’s hands seem to be dancing. That’s the jazz component of rag: You can’t help but move with the music, and ragtime is Ulmer’s beat. In fact, she was instrumental in creating a program for American Classics called One Hundred Years of TREEMOMNISHA to commemorate Scott Joplin’s groundbreaking ragtime opera.
You can hear Ulmer and her infectious ragtime on a new CD called AMERICAN PLACES (Musical Travels) recorded for American Music Preservation. The CD not only celebrates ragtime but a wide swath of historical, distinctly American material from a Cape Cod sea chantey to the cowboy laments of the California territories… with composers from Edward MacDowell whose reverent, painterly New England Memories evoke a solitary country walk, to Roger Lee Hall’s remarkably inventive, surprisingly impressionistic Seven Variations (on a Shaker Marching Tune) which bring Debussy to mind.
Ulmer is joined on the recording by bass-baritone Eric Sosman for gems like their exquisitely mournful Shenandoah and an odd, amusing theatrical composition by E.T. Paull, which takes the form of a musical dramatization of Sheridan’s “heroic” Civil War ride to the battlefield. The Descriptive March Gallop is narrated directly over the music, with hilarious, redundant commentary like “Bugle sounding” over the sound of a bugle and then over the pianissimo bugle call, “Bugle in the distance.” I can’t help but recall what critic Richard Dyer opined about an effusive Russian concert: “Dogs would weep.”
Ulmer can make a tune like Yankee Doodle Dandy (Benjamin Carr’s 1804 Rondo version) sound like pure Mozart embellishment. She can make John Philip Sousa’s very last patriotic march, Hands Across the Sea, sound like a duet for four hands as the thrilling music tears up and down the keyboard! She fuses two versions of Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, transforming it with chilling, sorrowful chords into a dark, despairing memento.
The CD visits the Missouri Valley, specifically St. Louis, for a sweet two-step rag by an itinerant, blind pianist named Charles Hunter… and of course Ulmer is in her element in a playful, jaunty Cake Walk by Scott Joplin and his student, Arthur Marshall. And she honors female composers with a majestic funeral march dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln by Mrs. E. A. Parkhurst, (as the sly CD commentary tells us) “of parlour song, temperance and spiritualist fame.”
The recording is full of treasures: folk arrangements by Ruth Crawford Seeger, compositions by Steven Foster and Paul Bowles and achingly sad settings for the familiar western songs, Streets of Laredo and Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.
In her CD notes, Ulmer quotes Alan Lomax from his prodigious Folk Songs of North America: “The map sings.” I’ll add that in Ulmer’s AMERICAN PLACES, the piano sings.