Sunday, December 22, 2019

Florence Price - Piano Concerto; Symphony No. 1 (Karen Walwyn; Leslie B. Dunner)


Information

Composer: Florence Price
  • (01) Piano Concerto in One Movement
  • (02) Symphony in E minor

Karen Walwyn, piano
New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Leslie B. Dunner, conductor

Date: 2011
Label: Albany Records
https://www.albanyrecords.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=TROY1295

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Review

Here we have world premiere recordings of two works by a black female composer who is virtually forgotten today. Florence B. Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, studying at home before moving to Boston to obtain an artist’s diploma in organ and a teacher’s diploma in piano from the New England Conservatory in 1906—a simply remarkable achievement for that time and place. She was a teacher at Shorter College and headed the music department in Clark University, both in Atlanta, through 1912. After returning to Little Rock, she moved to Chicago in 1927 where she studied composition in various institutions, including Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory, where she also taught piano. Price wrote music all of her life, producing around 330 compositions, among them art songs and spiritual arrangements performed by Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. During the Depression, her larger works were performed by music groups sponsored by the WPA in Illinois and Michigan. She died in Chicago in 1953.

The piano concerto had to be newly orchestrated as the only surviving score copies are a solo piano version with a reduced orchestration as well as two-piano and three-piano versions. Although it is technically in one movement, there are three distinct sections played without a break. The first section has very strong overtones of Dvorák’s music; the Adagio section is a very slow piano solo with light orchestral obbligato, and a few jazzy twists near the end; the last section is identified in the liner notes as a juba or antebellum folk dance, bouncy and full of fun. But what marks this is the high quality of the music; this is no slapped-together piece, begging for attention only because an African-American or a woman wrote it, but a thoroughly composed piece of very high quality.

If I allude to Dvorák in her concerto, it’s because in a certain sense that composer’s “New World” Symphony made a profound impression on Americans, including African-Americans, so much so that they borrowed the theme of its second movement for the spiritual Goin’ Home . Moreover, I’ve long felt that there is a certain kinship between the yearning, emotional quality of Eastern European music and the black American experience. You can hear this kinship, as well as an even more powerful black American feeling, in Price’s 1932 Symphony in E Minor. Originally subtitled “Negro Symphony,” Price quickly dropped that because she thought the strong associations engendered would detract from the “perception of the symphony’s scope.” This symphony won first prize in the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest, and was premiered in 1933 by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making it the first work by a black woman to be performed by a major symphony orchestra in the U.S.

Both African-American and Western-European influences bob and weave their way throughout the symphony, intertwining in such a way that one cannot separate the one from the other. Both the principal and secondary themes are constructed from a pentatonic scale, and both involve syncopated, but not jazz, rhythms common—as I pointed out—to both African-American and Slavic folk music. What I find so remarkable about the first movement is the way the themes as well as their variations and permutations keep ebbing and flowing in and out of each other. At one point, one of the earlier themes appears as an occasional counterpoint to the new one as the emotional climate erupts in a forte passage of great power, then falls back to sparse winds and horns with occasional, ominous timpani rolls underneath. Her mastery of harmony allows her to keep changing keys without ever getting herself, or the listener, lost.

The second movement makes references to church music, spirituals, and traditional African music. It is built around an original hymn tune played by a brass choir, around which one eventually hears African drums and “cathedral chimes.” Price, the organist, wanted to make good use of the cathedral chimes stop in the Roosevelt Organ in Chicago’s Auditorium Theater, scene of the premiere. In the third movement, Price returns to her juba rhythm (she apparently loved it) while the fourth is built around a strong triplet figure in 2/4 time that, believe it or not, almost has an Irish jig feeling to it.

I am not particularly happy about the sonics on this CD; as with so many modern discs (particularly those produced by Naxos), there’s too much ambience around the orchestra, softening the impact of some of the music and making the orchestral textures less clear. Of course, in some movements (such as the second movement of the symphony), conductor Leslie Dunner’s concept is to produce an almost continuous flowing legato, which of course is in keeping with the music at that point, but there are certainly other times where he is trying to bring out the syncopations and pointed rhythms, but in those moments the goopy aural balm of the recording dull its impact. Nevertheless, this is an important and vital release, filling an important gap in American musical culture. Karen Walwyn is an excellent pianist, and her playing in the concerto lends a wonderful air of breathless excitement to the proceedings. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

-- Lynn René Bayley, FANFARE

More reviews:
https://www.allmusic.com/album/florence-price-concerto-in-one-movement-symphony-in-e-minor-mw0002275045
https://www.amazon.com/Florence-Price-Concerto-One-Movement/dp/B00631LTFA

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Florence Beatrice Price (née Smith; April 9, 1887 – June 3, 1953) was an American classical composer, pianist, organist, music teacher. Price is noted as the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Price wrote many extended works for orchestra, chamber works, art songs, works for violin, organ anthems, piano pieces, spiritual arrangements, four symphonies, three piano concertos, and a violin concerto. Following her death, much of her work was overshadowed as new musical styles emerged.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Price

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Karen Walwyn

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Leslie Byron Dunner (born January 5, 1956 in New York City) is an American conductor and composer. Dunner earned his bachelor's degree at the Eastman School of Music, and later went on to attend Queens College in New York City and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He was music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Joffrey Ballet and the South Shore Opera Companies (both in Chicago), and the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra. Besides his long-term posts Dunner has performed as guest conductor with major orchestras around the world.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Dunner

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