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Santa Rosa Symphony will spotlight Black composer’s ‘lost’ work

“American Rhapsody”

What: The Santa Rosa Symphony under Guest Conductor Aram Demirjian will perform an all-American music program with guest pianist Michelle Cann.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12; 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13; and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14. There will be a preconcert lecture one hour before curtain each day. Discovery Open Rehearsal will be 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12.

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Tickets: $24-$87; Discovery Rehearsal is $18 adult, $10 youth

To reserve: 707-564-8742 or srsymphony.org

Safety protocols: There will be no concessions, but free cups of water will be available in the courtyard. Masks, photo ID and proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative PCR test taken within 48 hours before the concert are required.

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.

“There are more than a few astonishing aspects to Florence Price and her Piano Concerto in One Movement, starting with the fact that a Black woman in the 1930s America managed to get her work noticed and performed by the classical music establishment,” wrote Philadelphia Inquirer Peter Dobrin. “Although the work has been recorded before, a more stirring and authoritative performance may not exist. … Much of the credit goes to pianist Michelle Cann.”

Cann has performed the concerto on a regular basis, including with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra led by Aram Demirjian, who will conduct the performances this weekend at the Green Music Center.

“He was in the audience when I played it in New York, and he wanted to book me with that piece,” she said. “We’re excited to work together again.”

Upcoming album

Cann earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Cleveland Institute of Music and has an artist’s diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she joined the faculty in 2020 as the inaugural Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies.

The Curtis Institute and Bay Chamber Concerts recently awarded Cann the 2022 Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award, which recognizes a pianist under the age of 40 who has made a serious commitment and contribution to chamber music.

Along with playing duo recitals with her sister, pianist Kimberly Cann, she regularly performs with soprano Karen Slack and has recently released a collaborative album, “Uncovered Volume 2: Florence B. Price,” with the Catalyst Quartet.

Cann is highly regarded as an inspirational music teacher and choir director in Philadelphia, where she has brought music closer to local communities where art and music education are difficult to access.

Later this year, Cann hopes to record another album of Price’s works, to continue to highlight them after they languished in obscurity for nearly 80 years.

As for her own challenges as a musician of color, Cann said there are often unspoken issues, such as when she wonders whether she did — or didn’t — get an opportunity because of her race. Her reaction, she said, is to just try to be the best teacher and artist she can be.

“Sometimes it’s hard to be accepted for yourself and your talent and artistry,” she said. “The problem is we’re not a colorblind country. … As human beings, we’re going to have prejudices and put people in boxes. But as an individual, you have to not let that bother you. It’s what you do that matters in the end.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

“American Rhapsody”

What: The Santa Rosa Symphony under Guest Conductor Aram Demirjian will perform an all-American music program with guest pianist Michelle Cann.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12; 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13; and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14. There will be a preconcert lecture one hour before curtain each day. Discovery Open Rehearsal will be 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12.

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Tickets: $24-$87; Discovery Rehearsal is $18 adult, $10 youth

To reserve: 707-564-8742 or srsymphony.org

Safety protocols: There will be no concessions, but free cups of water will be available in the courtyard. Masks, photo ID and proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative PCR test taken within 48 hours before the concert are required.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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