Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Carnegie Hall, May 2, 1912

The directors of the Music School Settlement were extremely pleased with the evening, both because it resulted in raising nearly $5,000 for the Harlem school, and because the orchestra performed so well. "Don't you worry," Europe had assured Ms. Curtis before the concert, "once those fellows hear that music and catch its swing they'll eat it right up." According to her, they did just that. "'Barbaric'!, one college-bred Negro called the Clef Club," she recalled. "'Barbaric!', we exclaimed in astonished admiration. That an orchestra of such power, freshness, vitality and originality could have remained so long undiscovered in novelty-hunting New York, was a silent and reproachful comment on the isolation of the `Negro quarter."' The large orchestra with its sections of banjos, mandolins, guitars, strings, and percussion, that entirely filled the stage, produced an "absolutely distinctive sound, a 'tang' like the flavor of pine-apple amid other fruits." To David Mannes, the orchestra's sound was "very imposing and seductively rhythmic," and yet the great "surprise" was "the beautiful, soft sound of this strange conglomeration of unassorted instruments." "Its only prototype in tone," he thought, was "the Russian balalaika orchestra." As for the leader, Mannes described Europe as "an amazingly inspiring conductor. Of a statuesquely powerful build, he moved with simple and modest grace, always dominating this strange assemblage before him with quiet control."

Mannes was impressed by the simultaneous singing as well as playing of orchestra members, who sometimes sang in a different clef or pitch than that of the instruments they played. There were also the fourteen upright pianos, placed back to back and played by fourteen of the best ragtime players in town, adding a "truly beautiful, rich and unusual" color to the overall sound. Two aspects of the Clef Club Orchestra's use of the piano are worth noting. First, the instruments, which Elbridge Adams - an official of the American Piano Company - provided as Europe had requested, were not the concert grands that most Carnegie Hall patrons were used to hearing; rather, they were the small uprights of the type that so many of the Clef Club musicians played in their regular jobs as entertainers in the hotels and clubs. The choice was deliberate. Second, the pianos were treated as orchestral instruments, as contributors to the overall sound and not employed in their more familiar role as solo instruments or as single voices in a trio or quintet. As such, Natalie Curtis thought them particularly effective, "weaving a sonorous background of tremolos, deepening with tone-values the roll of the kettledrums, sharpening percussion effects with varieties of pitch, emphasizing rhythmic outline, coloring the accents, blending strings, brass, plectrum and drums into a vibrant unity of sound - a link between them all."
From A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe, by Reid Badger, Oxford, 1995.
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