BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
May 24 2023
Review: William Ruff
Florence Price: a composer who deserves her place in musical history
The latest Nottingham ‘Discovering’ concert celebrated the life and music of Florence Price, a composer whose work is emerging from many years of neglect. Five years ago her name would have been known only to a handful of specialists but now artists are queuing up to perform and record her music. And there’s a lot of it. Over 300 works, in fact: symphonies, concertos, choral works, songs, piano and organ music, pieces for chamber ensembles.
She was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 and died in Chicago in 1953. Her childhood was spent as one of three children in a mixed-race family, her father being a dentist and her mother a music teacher. Florence grew up to be a pianist, organist, music teacher – and prolific composer. She was the first African-American woman to be recognised as a classical composer, her first symphony being performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. Sadly after her death her music lay neglected until one day in 2009 when vast quantities of it were discovered in an abandoned house in Illinois. Slowly live performances and recordings followed until now when there can’t be many classical music lovers who haven’t heard her story or her music.
This BBC Radio 3 ‘Discovering’ concert showcased two of her most attractive works, the celebrated Symphony No 1 and the Piano Concerto in One Movement. The concert’s first half featured an illustrated talk by presenter Chris Wines in which he placed the symphony firmly within its context: a musical world dominated by Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Price’s deep experience of African-American spirituals and church music. Dance rhythms from the plantations abound and we are constantly reminded of voices singing in fields and churches. Price had a perceptive ear for orchestral colour: bells, African drums, whistles make an appearance, for instance. And her tunes are instantly memorable: once heard the opening bassoon melody of the First Symphony becomes an earworm impossible to dislodge.
The concert’s second half featured the BBC Philharmonic performing in full the pieces which they had illustrated in part one. Jeneba Kanneh-Mason joined them to perform the Piano Concerto, a work she has just recorded with the Chineke! Orchestra. The piece has so many Price hallmarks: the opening trumpet tune takes us into the heart of African-American spirituals and the piano writing reminds us who her piano heroes were: Liszt, Grieg, even Rachmaninov…and the ghost of Dvorak could also be heard and seen hovering in the background. Jeneba Kanneh-Mason clearly has deep affinity with Price’s sound world, her playing not only having all the virtuosity that the writing demands but also shone with sincerity throughout. The ragtime finale was brilliant, raucous and just plain happy. The audience loved it and probably wouldn’t have complained if Jeneba had sat down and played it all again.
However, there was the First Symphony to perform. Conductor Joshua Weilerstein clearly knows Price’s musical language intimately and was expert at coaxing exactly the right colours and rhythms from the BBC Phil. The brass section was particularly strong in the slow movement’s hymn-like sections and there were lovely solos from the orchestra’s principals, especially oboe and cello. The spirit of the dance infused the final two movements and I guess I am not the only one who found it difficult to sit still. As an overall musical structure, however, the symphony is somewhat eccentric: two long movements followed by two very short ones.
Florence Price wrote attractive, immediately appealing music, clothed in bright colours and ear-catching rhythms. Spirituals, ragtime and the influence of her beloved Dvorak can be heard everywhere. She didn’t have pretensions to greatness but the musical world has been enriched by her prolific energy and by that discovery in 2009 of the musical mountain she left behind.
Discovering Florence Price
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Joshua Weilerstein, conductor
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, Piano
Chris Wines, presenter