Columbia Civic Orchestra celebrates musical tradition at renovated theatre

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 | 5:55 p.m. CDT; updated 11:48 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The Columbia Civic Orchestra, conducted by Stefan Freund, rehearses Tuesday evening at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts for an upcoming concert on Nov. 2. Ethan Uslan, renowned Ragtime music pianist, is the featured pianist for the concert's celebration of Missouri's pastime with ragtime music.

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Civic Orchestra’s debut at the newly renovated Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts on Sunday will treat the audience to a program of ragtime and classical music, a celebrated pianist and the premiere of a piece meant as a tribute to the “King of Ragtime," Scott Joplin.

“Ragfare,” composed by the orchestra’s music director, Stefan Freund, celebrates an American musical genre popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“The music really causes you to want to jerk your body around, really feel things,” Freund said.

He said that when people around the country think about Missouri, they think the state has a strong sense of music — for example, in bluegrass, ragtime and the blues.

“Really, from my experience, when I think about Missouri, I think of it as the home of today's popular music,” Freund said, explaining that ragtime led to jazz, which led to rock and thus to music we listen to today.

If you go

What: Columbia Civic Orchestra's season debut, featuring old-time pianist Ethan Uslan on the "Joplin Suite," a premiere of "Ragfare" by Stefan Freund and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

When: 4 p.m. Nov. 2

Where: Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, 203 S. Ninth St.

Tickets: Students $5. Advanced purchase $10; at the door $15. Available at the box office, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or online at

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"Ragfare" is a blend of fanfare figures and ragtime tunes. “I wanted to write something celebratory for the audience to enjoy,” Freund said. “I really wanted to write something that captured the spirit of Missouri.”

Freund said that though he had been thinking about writing the piece for a long time, he was able to write it during the first couple of weeks of August. Familiarity with ragtime helped.

“The challenges in writing the piece were how to make it sound fresh, how to write something practical for the orchestra and how to make it all come together," Freund said. "The piece balances all these elements well.”

In programming the concert with Missouri's heritage in mind, Freund approached an old friend, Ethan Uslan, a popular ragtime and traditional jazz pianist. “Most of Joplin’s music is solo piano,” Freund said. “I thought, 'If we’re going to have a ragtime show, I should have Ethan come.'”

Uslan placed first in the 2007 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Peoria, Ill., has performed on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and was featured at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia.

Ragtime, Freund said, is in danger of being a lost art, and Uslan is dedicated to promoting it — studying Joplin with other ragtime performers to perfect their art.

“He has so much power behind what he’s doing,” Freund said.

Uslan's now-flourishing career began slowly. After graduating from college, he worked at a library because he didn’t have the confidence to play the piano. He recalled playing at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where travelers tipped him. His career advanced only after he received the North Carolina Regional Artist’s Grant to make a CD.

“When I made the CD and started marketing myself, I was able to get people to want to listen to my music,” Uslan said. “I sold a lot of CDs there (at the airport) and when people passed by, they seemed to really like ragtime.”

Uslan said that when he was growing up, he played Chopin, Beethoven and Bach like most piano students, but he knew he wanted to be different and play one genre better than anyone else. He found ragtime.

“I find that I have more fun playing ragtime than classical because when you play the ragtime, people tap their feet and often they dance, people sing along, and I can improvise,” Uslan said. “The fact that you can improvise makes it much more fun for me.”

In searching for ragtime works for orchestra, he and Freund found an arrangement of five Joplin rags for piano and orchestra by the late Alaskan musician Gordon Wright. Freund said it took effort to get all of the parts of the instrumental composition from Alaska since there were no copies, but the music was ideal for the concert.

He said that when people think of ragtime music, they think of the “Maple Leaf Rag” or “The Entertainer,” but Joplin also wrote slower rags with a more lyrical feel. The "Joplin Suite," which will be performed Sunday includes both.

“The music will sound different from what they’re used to,” Freund said. “The music is really more diverse than the stereotype of ragtime.”

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