Pioneering African American composer featured in recent Philadelphia Orchestra performance

by Michael Caruso
Posted 3/4/21

As we Americans struggle with the COVID-19 coronavirus, we shouldn’t give ourselves a pass on the “other” pandemic afflicting American society, one that has been a virtual curse on …

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Pioneering African American composer featured in recent Philadelphia Orchestra performance

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As we Americans struggle with the COVID-19 coronavirus, we shouldn’t give ourselves a pass on the “other” pandemic afflicting American society, one that has been a virtual curse on our nation since the early 17th century.

Institutional racism has been the bane of American life since the first African slaves were deposited on these shores. It subsequently brought about spreading violence throughout the 19th century that finally resulted in a bloody Civil War that resulted in at least 750,000 deaths. It sustains a racial divide that continues to haunt the nation to this very day.

As a direct result of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, many American institutions in all disciplines of life have begun a painful re-evaluation of their modes of operation. Among the leading organizations taking an honest look at that corporate history is the Philadelphia Orchestra under the artistic leadership of its music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

The most recent “virtual” concert by Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra, available online from the end of February through the beginning of March, was a stellar example of this endeavor. Alongside the “Tragic” Fourth Symphony of Franz Schubert and the Overture to “La scala di seta” by Gioachino Rossini, the program included Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement in D minor.

Composed between 1933-34 and premiered in Chicago during the latter, the work subsequently disappeared from the concert stage and even the knowledge of most musicians, including pianists. It wasn’t until recently that the full orchestra score was found. Prior to that, only the two-piano version was known to exist.

That feat of “rediscovery” was the product of efforts by Cornell University’s “ONEcomposer” project, directed by two of the school’s professors, Tamara Acosta and Stephen Spinelli. If the latter’s name rings a bell that’s because he was once the tenor soloist under Zachary Hemenway’s music direction at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill. It really is “a small world,” after all.

The Concerto’s having been sentenced to oblivion isn’t surprising. It was composed by a woman, that woman was African American, and its musical language is avowedly tonal – an unjustifiable “three strikes you’re out” anathema if ever there was one.

Throughout its history, classical music has taken a condescending view of women composers – even such obviously talented individuals as Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister) and Clara Schumann (Robert’s wife). Even the towering figure of Amy Beach has only recently been given her well-earned due regard.

As for African Americans, we here in Philadelphia know more than a few who have had to fight 10 times harder than any white musician with one-tenth the talent to gain notice. You need only think of contralto Marian Anderson to get the picture.

Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement in D minor was also forced to fight the battle against the rising tide of anti-tonal serialism from the 1930s through the late 20th century. It was only then that classical musicians finally recognized the poison they had drunk that divorced classical music from its historic foundation in folk and popular styles. The inevitable result -- a near-total estrangement between contemporary classical music and the broad swathe of audiences in America and Europe -- has yet to be repaired. Again, thinking of Philadelphia, Samuel Barber’s refusal to tow the anti-tonal line cost him his rightful place in the pantheon of American composers until recent reassessments of his music have finally done so.

Price’s Concerto is a focused masterpiece of structural concision and emotional expressivity. All three of its sections call upon the spirituals the composer heard in her youth as their melodic, harmonic ands rhythms inspirations. You can also hear references to the music of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Joplin and Gershwin – but all brought together in a convincing language all Price’s own. Her writing for the piano is a beautiful balance between brilliance on the outer ends and lyricism in the middle, and her orchestration is equally evocative and supportive.

Newly appointed Curtis Institute of Music faculty member Michelle Cann was the convincing piano soloist, and Nezet-Seguin provided superb accompaniment.

Prior to the rendition given the Concerto, Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians gave the Rossini a sparkling reading; after the interval, they proffered a heart-felt interpretation of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

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