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Scott Joplin's Treemonisha [Original Cast Recording]
Scott Joplin, Gunther Schuller, Houston Grand Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Scott Joplin's Treemonisha [Original Cast Recording]
Genres: Jazz, Classical, Broadway & Vocalists
  •  Track Listings (10) - Disc #1
  •  Track Listings (17) - Disc #2

Joplin (ca. 1868-1917), whose fame as a composer had skyrocketed in the 1960s and '70s as a result of the "rediscovery" of his rags by Gunther Schuller, Joshua Rifkin, and others, poured his heart and soul into this tale o...  more »


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Joplin (ca. 1868-1917), whose fame as a composer had skyrocketed in the 1960s and '70s as a result of the "rediscovery" of his rags by Gunther Schuller, Joshua Rifkin, and others, poured his heart and soul into this tale of black sharecroppers and their struggle against ignorance and superstition in late-19th-century Arkansas. Yet he was never able to get the work staged in his lifetime. This recording comes from Treemonisha's belated full-scale staging at Houston Grand Opera in 1975, with a splendid cast headed by Carmen Balthrop, Betty Allen, Curtis Rayam, and Willard White, directed by Frank Corsaro and conducted by Gunther Schuller (who provided the arrangements and the scoring). Joplin's tuneful score is a lively mix of ragtime, minstrel show, vaudeville, grand opera, Wagner, Verdi, and Offenbach, with lots of dancing, a big role for the chorus, and arias and ensembles of affecting simplicity and beauty. Schuller gets an impressively crisp performance from the orchestra, a Dixieland band with added strings and winds, and paces the performance to perfection--for fun, just listen to the Act II-ending chorus "Aunt Dinah has blowed the horn." The recording sounds as fresh and bright as the inspiration that speaks from every page of this all-American score. --Ted Libbey

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CD Reviews

Treemonisha is unique
E. G. Jones | Auckland, New Zealand | 11/16/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I already have the Houston Treemonisha on vinyl but after sixteen years it is likely to deteriorate so I bought the CD too.

Treemonisha is not grand opera in the traditional sense; it is not a ragtime opera; it isn't this, that or the other thing. It is itself, uniquely beautiful, profoundly moving and probably a work of genius. Surely we, as music lovers of the world, have matured beyond the compulsion to place every piece of music in a defining category. Some criticisms of Treemonisha I have read are little less absurd than admonishing the player of an Indian raga for not modulating according to sonata form. The disease is a product of too much learning and sadly afflicts talented professionals even more commonly than it does the man in the street.

The forces behind Treemonisha are very eloquently explained in the liner notes, and need no further elaboration. The love and regard for the music by those producing and performing it is abundantly obvious. The technical quality of the recording is excellent and the notes provide even the most naive listener (and Treemonisha is superbly naive in the best sense of the word) with everything necessary in the way of background.

A review cannot influence a prejudiced mind. This work, if any, is a prime candidate for Debussy's maxim - just listen, it is enough.

An overlooked 20th century masterpice.
Douglas Milburn | Houston | 08/31/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Ignore the elitist condescension and musicological nit-picking in the Gramophone review above. Treemonisha waited 60 years for its first professional performance, by Houston Grand Opera in 1975. Apparently it's going to have to wait another 60 years for proper recognition of its remakrable music. And the music _is_ the thing. Sure, the plot is simplistic, the characters are two-dimensional... but then that's true of many an opera, yes? The music, the music. Gunther Schuller's vivid period orchestration provides a solid foundation for a fine group of singers and an outstanding chorus. What is alas necessarily msising from the CD is the dancing. Rags were _dance_ music. And what carried the HGO production from the fine to the sublime was the dancing. A commercial video of the original HGO production was released on Sony which caught a great deal of the celebratory energy released by the dancers. --Douglas Milburn"
An unjustly neglected masterpiece
Charles Richards | Los Angeles, CA | 08/04/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Forget what everyone says about this work: it is not a musical, a "folk opera" or a "ragtime opera", it is a full-blown romantic opera, pure and simple. Like Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" it has been mis-classified for years; unlike "Porgy", however, it has not met with the former's unmitigated success on stage or in the opera house.
Joplin's score languished for years: due mainly to the fact of his early, tragic death, and the fact that the world (or at least the U.S.) was not ready for a grand opera written by an African-American, particularly an African-American composer of "lowly" rag-time music. Certainly, some other composers of African descent had achieved some status by this time, but mostly in Europe (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor comes to mind, his oratorio "Hiawatha" was a concert favorite for years), and I think it was mostly prejudice that kept Joplin's score from being heard.
Luckily, the amazing Joplin revival in the early 70's (in no small part due to its use in the film "The Sting") enabled us to hear his final masterpiece at last, albeit without his original orchestration, which has been lost. Although it caused a brief stir and engendered a complete recording and a TV telecast (which was available for a time on VHS), we've heard little of it since.
And this is altogether puzzling, as the music is some of the most magnificent and appealing ever to be written for the operatic stage. True, it's not forward-looking (much of it hearkens back to Weber and Bellini) and the libretto is not a literary masterpiece (but few are). However, it shows signs of genius that are hard to ignore: Monisha's opening aria, the duet for Monisha and Ned in the third act; and, in particular, the choral writing -- "We Want You to be Our Leader" is nothing short of breathtaking in its complexity and beauty.
There are also plenty of delightful lighter passages as well, full of the magic of Joplin's piano compositions; in fact, the mixture of light and heavier music in the score is perfectly constructed.
But, despite its successful debut in the 70's, the work has never taken hold in the operatic repertoire. Some see it merely as a curiosity; in an artical in the LA times a number of years ago which dealt with operatic works by African-Americans, it was labeled as nothing more than an "entertainment". This is unjust in the extreme. Anyone listening to this work who can remain unmoved and/or uplifted by it must have a heart of stone or a massive chip on their shoulder.
This recording remains, alas, the only complete one to date, and it is simply wonderful, a fantastic record of a lovingly felt undertaking. The cast is perfect, with Balthrop, Allen and White being the standouts, and Schuller's conducting of his re-constructed orchestrations shows his love for and complete understanding of this score. I only say alas because this is a score that's worthy of new interpretation; this only may happen once the work is (finally) taken seriously as the first great American opera. Hopefully this day will eventually come."