Better have Wikipedia handy for this one. As its epic title Dawn of the Century suggests, versatile pianist and ultra-prolific YouTuber Christina Pepper takes us on a whimsical, rambunctious journey back to the early 1900s to showcase her amazing chops in the service of classic marches and two steps (mostly, by design, minor works among better known catalog pieces) by the most renowned composers of the era.
Besides Pepper’s buoyant, fast paced, often dramatic arrangements and playing – which, true, to the cover art, comes across like a full band performed on solo piano = one of the striking aspects of the ten-track collection is simply imagining all the research this self-professed nerd must have done to find such a perfect array of tunes to represent and capture the spirit of popular American music of the time (1900-1927).
The only composer whose name may be familiar to the average listener is John Philip Sousa, whose familiar dynamic marches are played on the 4th of July and other U.S. holidays. But rather than give us the umpteenth rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Pepper hones in on the lighthearted yet motivational “Who’s Who in Navy Blue?” a 1920 piece written for that year’s graduating class at the U.S. Naval Academy. With some light Googling, we also learn that Sousa dedicated the piece to a wooden statue of Tecumseh, whose stern figurehead adorns Bancroft Hall at the Academy.
If you’ve got a free moment or two, make Christina’s playful yet faithful renditions a soundtrack to an hour of online research on names largely lost to history like E.T. Paull (“Dawn of the Century,” “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”), Harry J. Lincoln (“Heaven’s Artillery,” “Jack of Spades”), Abe Holzmann (“Uncle Sammy”) and Edwin Franko Goldman (the plucky closer “On The Pier”). All are worthy contributors to our country’s musical canon and kudos to Pepper for shining a light and bringing a fresh perspective on them to generations listening a century later.
Under the name Christina Pepper Piano – same as she uses for her ample YouTube output – the pianist has released several excellent classical albums, including one dedicated to 18th and 19th Century Italian composer Muzio Clementi. But she seems to have hit her creative stride – pun very much intended – on Christina Pepper Piano Plays Ragtime! (which includes Scott Joplin but also stylized interpretations of John Williams’ “Cantina Song" and Billy Joel's "Root Beer Rag") and now the spectacular and richly inspiring Dawn of the Century. It’s an invitation to experience the past that you won’t want to miss!