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It might easily have been the 1890's in the Lancaster Opera House. Bunting decked the stage. A group of fresh-faced young musicians strolled in. The crowd buzzed with curiousity. Tall, slick orchestra leader Rick Benjamin raised his baton. The results were irresistible.

Halfway through the opening "Knock-Out Drops" rag, someone enthused audibly, "Gee, they're terrific!" She was right. The musicianship was consistently excellent. These Julliard musicians played with an ease and grace that can only be reached by the very skilled.

Using authentic period arrangements from the Arthur Pryor Orchestra Collection, the group presented rags, two steps, foxtrots and marches from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each was introduced by Benjamin with tidbits of information.

Selections ranged from the familiar "Smiles" and "Heliotrope Bouquet" (of "Sting II" fame) to long-forgotten tunes like "Great Scott" and "Eugenia." His choices were described by Benjamin as "arcane and obscure."

This program was a carefully researched, lovingly performed echo of an earlier, simpler time. Thought to be risque then, ragtime is now considered the first distinctly American music.

Instrumental highlights included trombonist Dan Toomey's "Lassus Trombone" and the piccolo virtuosity of Leslie Cullen in "The Whistler and His Dog."

Soloist Carol Wilson has a full rich soprano voice. It was well suited to her melodramatic "Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?" and the more vibrant "Wait Till The Sun Shines Nellie." She invoked an age that held the quaint notion that a melodious voice and articulate speech were assets for a popular singer.

Before concluding, the orchestra accompanied the audience in a sing-along of 1890's song favorites. "Sidewalks of New York," "Little Annie Rooney" and "After the Ball" were among the familiar tunes.

Last on the program was a showing of the Thomas Edison Company 1903 release "The Great Train Robbery." The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra accompanied the film with an authentic theater orchestra score. Villains appeared, a chase ensued and the hero triumphed -- all with appropriate orchestral flourish. It was all good fun.

Two encores were offered. The last, Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," again featured Cullen's piccolo artistry.

Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

12-piece orchestra, Rick Benjamin, director; Carol Wilson, soloist.

Tuesday evening in Lancaster Opera House.

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