Santa Rosa Symphony will spotlight Black composer’s ‘lost’ work
When pianist Michelle Cann takes center stage this weekend with the Santa Rosa Symphony, she’ll put her talent for musical storytelling to the test. She’ll be playing Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement, which not only covers a lot of ground in 20 minutes but has quite a backstory, too.
“You have to put so much character and meaning and energy into every note from the very beginning, because of the length,” Cann said. “You have to be convincing the whole time. And she changes directions a lot, very quickly. The first section is very romantic. The second section is a spiritual, and the third section is a dance.”
The “American Rhapsody” classical concert series will also feature Cann as soloist in Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue” for Piano and Orchestra. “Darker America” by the famous Black composer William Grant Still, will open the concert at the Green Music Center, and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” will bring it to a close.
The story behind Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement has more twists and turns than a suspense novel, as it has moved from renown to benign neglect and back.
It is one of some 300 works composed by Price, who was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was the first Black woman to gain national recognition for her compositions after her Symphony No. 1 in E-minor won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize in 1932 and was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.
The Piano Concerto in One Movement was also well received at its premiere in 1934 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Price’s concerto reflects her experience as a Black woman raised in the post-Civil War South. Alongside references to Brahms and Beethoven, listeners will recognize allusions to African-American spirituals, call-and-response songs improvised on plantations and the syncopated dance rhythms of “juba.”
After the concerto’s premiere, a Pittsbugh Sun Telegraph reviewer wrote “There (in the concerto) is a real American music, and Mrs. Price is speaking a language she knows.”
The daughter of a middle-class dentist, Price had the benefit of an education at the New England Conservatory, where she studied piano and organ. With a career that spanned both the Harlem and Chicago renaissances, she became part of the Black intelligentsia but faced many obstacles in getting her music played due to the era’s sexism and segregation.
Cann said a recent biography, “The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price,” by Rae Linda Brown, shows how strong Price was, not just as a composer and pianist but as a Black woman trying to establish a career in the South.
“After the abolition of slavery, essentially there was a period where Black Americans were doing pretty well. … She grew up not doubting herself at that time,” Cann said. “But then, the Jim Crow laws come up, and she couldn’t stay in the South. She went to Chicago because of segregation. And that shaped her story.”
Obscurity to revival
By the time Price died in 1953, her piano concerto had all but vanished, along with its original orchestration. Price’s remarkable story faded, too, but it would be revived in the 21st century thanks to a few fortuitous events.
In 2009, more than half of Price’s works for piano, orchestra, voice, organ and other ensembles were discovered in the attic of her former summer home outside of Chicago.
The original score for the piano concerto was not among those manuscripts. However, in 2011, composer Trevor Weston reconstructed the orchestration from a two-piano manuscript that included copious notes Price had scribbled on it.
In 2016, Cann was asked by the Dream Unfinished activist orchestra in New York to perform a piece by a Black female composer. A friend sent her Price’s piano concerto.
“Once I started to learn this piece, I couldn’t believe how amazing it was,” Cann said. “And it got me very excited to learn other pieces by her. I found all this piano solo music, and eventually, chamber music.”
The story took another turn in 2019, when a manuscript of the original orchestration turned up at an auction. Two Cornell University music professors combed through the score to resolve errors, then convinced the Philadelphia Orchestra to program the concerto.
In Februrary of 2021, Cann performed Price’s piano concerto during a Philadelphia Orchestra Digital Stage presentation. It marked the first time the piece had been played in North America in its original orchestration since the composer’s death in 1953, and possibly since the mid-1930s.