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Albright packs puckish rags with complex moods

On July 15, as part of the Old West Organ Society’s summer series, Dennis King-Yeung Chan performs a recital at Old West Church that will include William Albright’s “Sweet Sixteenths,” a “concert rag” for the pipe organ. Born in 1944, Albright (inset) mastered multiple musical careers. He composed prolifically, across a wide range of genres. He was an accomplished church musician, penning hymns and liturgical works in a practical modern style. He made a specialty of the organ, as a composer and a virtuoso performer. But it was his devotion to ragtime, that syncopated, turn-of-the-century combination of Romantic harmony and African-American rhythm, that seemed to pique the most interest. Albright (along with his University of Michigan colleague William Bolcom) helped fuel the ragtime revival of the 1960s and ’70s; with Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, and stride master James P. Johnson as personal touchstones, Albright became an excellent ragtime interpreter, and composed a small but deep collection of original rags.

Albright embraced the style’s elegance but also pushed its boundaries, often deliberately straining its limits. “Scott Joplin’s Victory,” the opening movement of Albright’s “Grand Sonata in Rag” (1968), cycles through an astonishing number of moods: triumphant pianistic fusillades, a grim, repeated-chord march, a skittish strain that keeps losing and gaining fractional beats. That labyrinthine quality is infused with Schumann-like obsessiveness in “The Nightmare Fantasy Rag,” the second of Albright’s 1970 “Dream Rags.” Doubling down on its diabolical piano-roll style, constantly circling back to its “Agitato fantastico” refrain with existential anxiety, breaking free only to end up in a brutalist epilogue (marked “Cruel rock tempo”), the piece brings the ragtime revival’s nostalgia face-to-face with the discord of Vietnam-era America.


“Sweet Sixteenths” is not nearly so confrontational — though it did originate as part of an instrumental suite depicting the seven deadly sins. Even in Albright’s most genial rags, there is a sense that genre was, in part, a way to corral and temper excess feeling. Albright came to classify all his own works based on their dominant trait — aggression, sensuality, spirituality, or humor — a way, perhaps, of imposing order on emotional volatility. He died in 1998, too young, from complications of alcoholism. Many obituaries focused on the novelty of his ragtime, at the expense of his larger body of work. But Albright’s rags, with their formal polish and sometimes audacious exuberance, form their own memorial: tenderness wrapped in exquisite packages, darker energies prowling an ornate cage.

Dennis King-Yeung Chan performs music of Buxtehude, Bach, Albright, Ashdown, and Bovet on the C.B. Fisk organ at Old West Church, 131 Cambridge St., July 15 at 8 p.m.; $10 suggested donation; 617-739-1340; www.oldwestorgansociety.org.


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.