PRICE Piano Concerto. Symphony in e • Leslie B. Dunner, cond; Karen Walwyn (pn); New Black Music Repertoire Ens • ALBANY 1295 (57:10)
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 andRead more 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 Dvo?ák’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 Dvo?ák 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.
Symphony no 1 in E minorby Florence Beatrice Price Conductor:
New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Period: 20th Century Written: USA
Concerto in One Movementby Florence Beatrice Price Performer:
Karen Walwyn (Piano)
New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Period: 20th Century Written: USA
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
classical enjoymentMarch 14, 2014By Beverly Van Kirk (Centennial, CO)See All My Reviews"The Symphonies were really lovely and very reminiscent of the classical pieces that I had heard as a child. It put me in mind of Tchaikovsky but also Debussy, Ravel Copeland or Vaughn Williams. A style of music that I like to this day."Report Abuse
Outstanding, upliftingAugust 9, 2012By Richard Broadbent (Emmitsburg, MD)See All My Reviews"I came to this cd in the most round about way. I'm a relatively new customer to Archiv, and seeing the depth of their catalog I searched on the Wanamaker Organ, thinking they might have something I hadn't found anywhere else. I've been a huge fan of it all my life. Nothing new there, but this cd came up because Ms. Price had won the Rodman Wanamaker music contest in 1932. I was fascinated with the descriptions of her life and music, the allsions to Dvorak, etc. attracted me. On first listen I find the works remind me more of Copland. The melodies are beautiful and use folk themes so well, just as he did. The piano playing is absolutely first rate; very beautiful. I will be looking for more works recorded by Karen Walwyn. The symphony is another gorgeous and expansive work. Neither piece is over orchestrated, at times quite sparse, so the excellent instrumental work shines through. If I was to find any fault it is that the horns seems slightly sharp in pitch at times. The recording is so precise, that may make thia stand out a bit. Thanks to Albany and the "cast" for keeping this delightful music alive. This is a new favorite disc for me ! Highly recommended !"Report Abuse