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Ragtime performer Rick Benjamin hopes his upcoming concert in Forest Hills will transport Queens residents to a time far from now, when vaudeville stars were kings and music had begun to tear at the seams of racial segregation.

Benjamin, the founder of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and several other musicians will perform works by Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin and other artists whose tunes once filled movie theaters and dance halls at the Church-in-the-Gardens in Forest Hills on March 21 at 5 p.m. Maspeth-based Musica Reginae Productions will present the concert.

The two-hour event, Benjamin said, should inform individuals that the ragtime music from the turn of the 20th century was not only the “fast and furious” music that many now know but contemplative and once highly controversial tunes.

“Ragtime represented the first time black and white culture reached out and embraced each other in America,” Benjamin said. “The rhythmic essence of this music was from Africa and imported to the U.S. in the time of slavery, and the western harmonic parts are European. This is a breakthrough that people need to know about. This is the music of our coming together.”

While newspaper opinion pages were once dominated by outraged commentary on these new songs that were going to end Western civilization as they knew it, ragtime has gone on to become a beloved art form often referred to as “America’s original music,” Benjamin said. Prior to ragtime, much of the music played in the United States was from Europe and those composing original music were frequently just copying others from across the ocean, said Benjamin, a ragtime scholar who graduated from Juilliard and formed his orchestra in the late 1980s.

“With ragtime we suddenly have our very first musical expression that was not only interesting to people here, but composers and serious musicians elsewhere were looking over here,” Benjamin said. “This is the beginning of the American century.”

Benjamin, who now lives in a small Pennsylvania town characterized by streets lined with Victorian homes, first formed his orchestra while attending Juilliard because he wanted to explore the ragtime music he believed to be underrepresented in music’s academic world. He said much of the March 21 concert will pay homage to Joplin, an ragtime performer who was destitute for much of his life but who became one of the most well-known musicians of the era. Joplin, who was born in Texas and spent much of his adult life in New York City, is buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst.

“We’ll explore the soundscape of Scott Joplin, a fascinating person who, when alive, was not a famous guy,” Benjamin said. “He was a struggling musician who lived in relative squalor in New York City buildings. In 1917 when he died, he had a pauper’s grave and didn’t have a headstone until 20 years ago.”

Caroline Chin, the artistic director at Musica Reginae, will perform with Benjamin and said she is looking forward to bringing the music of people like Joplin and Berlin to Queens.

“Rick is someone who knows so much about early 20th century American music, so it’s very exciting to have him come here,” Chin said.

For more information, visit musicareginae.org.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 5:53 pm, October 10, 2011
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