Ragtime pianist Adam Swanson is a confident guide to world of ragtime music, declaring that Irving Berlin’s famous Alexander’s Ragtime Band “hardly has any ragtime in it, but the way I play it, it does.”
The boyish and folksy Swanson is four time winner of the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest, held every year in Mississippi. On Thursday night he delighted an Australian audience at Queanbeyan’s Bicentennial Hall with ragtime tunes selected from his formidable repertoire.
Notably, Swanson played without sheet music, playing complex pieces such as Brier’s Blue Sahara entirely from memory.
Swanson’s playing was light and lively, giving the marching ragtime rhythms a playful air.
Swanson was also an affable host for the night, complaining that he is sick of Joplin’s The Entertainer (the well-worn theme of The Sting), and at one point dismissing boogie woogie as “nothing but fast blues.”
A mix of old and new ragtime included well-known classics such as Leighton’s Frankie and Johnny, skipping tunes such as Lamb’s Bohemia, and dense, complex modern ragtime from Brier, including the attention-seizing Razor Blades.
To appeal to the Australian audience, Swanson also played an Australian song he had recently discovered as sheet music tucked away in a second hand shop, a bright and melodious piece called Colour Scheme (possibly composed by Australian pianist Sefton Daly).
The night concluded with a medley of well-known Australian songs such as Waltzing Matilda arranged as rags.
The respectful audience absorbed Swanston’s virtuoso play with hushed appreciation, even if the jaunty music craved a livelier reception. The Bicentennial Hall’s relaxed, dinner theatre atmosphere (with open bar) was however a better fit for the show than the formality of a concert hall.
At the end of the night one young couple hopped up to dance to the music. This beautiful moment provided the perfect end to an entertaining guided stroll down memory lane.
Swanson's stop in Queanbeyan was a brief one, but after the warm reception he received it may not be his last.