Classical CD Reviews

“Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, Vol. 3” = FLORENCE B. PRICE: Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor – Karen Walwyn, p./ New Black Music Repertory Ens./ Leslie B. Dunner – Albany

Price was a pioneering composer, and it’s good to hear her work even if this recording won’t herald a Florence Price revival.

Published on December 18, 2012

“Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, Vol. 3” = FLORENCE B. PRICE: Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor – Karen Walwyn, p./ New Black Music Repertory Ens./ Leslie B. Dunner – Albany

“Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, Vol. 3” = FLORENCE B. PRICE: Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor – Karen Walwyn, piano / New Black Music Repertory Ensemble / Leslie B. Dunner – Albany TROY1295, 56:47 ***:

Florence B. Price (1887–1953) must have been a remarkable woman but also one given remarkable advantages during the height of the Jim Crow era. Born in Little Rock, she studied at the New England Conservatory, in 1906 receiving a teacher’s diploma, which enabled her to teach music at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia, and Clark University in Atlanta. In 1927 she relocated to Chicago, where she studied composition and taught piano. She wrote more than 300 compositions, debuting some of them as piano soloist, including the Concerto in One Movement (1934). During the 30s and 40s, others of her longer compositions were performed under the sponsorship of the WPA. Probably Price’s greatest artistic coup was winning first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest with her Symphony in E Minor, premiered in 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony, thus becoming the first composition by a black woman to be performed by a major American orchestra.

Following the premiere of the concerto, it was apparently played only one other time, with Price’s student Margaret Bonds as soloist. It was never published, and there are no manuscript copies of the orchestral score, so the orchestra parts had to be reconstructed based on piano reductions of the score and notes that Price had made on the work’s orchestration. The Center for Black Music Research commissioned composer Trevor Weston to reconstruct the orchestral parts, this version being premiered in 2011 with Karen Walwyn at the piano.

Both the Concerto and the Symphony are hybrid works—some movements, though reflecting folk-musical influences, sounding very much like late-Romantic works in the German symphonic tradition. Specifically, as with other American composers who followed the call of Antonín Dvořák to incorporate native American music in their classical compositions, some of the Czech master’s compositional traits show up in Price’s work. In fact, the first movement of Price’s symphony has the same broad-shouldered drama as the first movement of The New World Symphony (like Price’s work, in the key of E minor), and its pentatonic themes recall Dvorak’s as well. While still showing debts to late-Romantic European music, the Concerto is a more individual piece of work but doesn’t have the emotional weight or memorability of the Dvorak symphony.

The Piano Concerto, although entitled Concerto in One Movement, falls into three sections corresponding to the fast-slow-fast arrangement of movements in the typical concerto. It gives the soloist a chance to show off almost immediately, with an extended cadenza coming early in the first section of the work. The second section is a simpler statement, without the big dramatic gestures of the first, and its chief melody seems influenced by spirituals. Oboe and then cello play attractive duets with the piano in this section. The last section, like the scherzo of the symphony, is based on an antebellum African-American dance known as the Juba, and it’s here where Price loses me. Like the cakewalk, the Juba is a strutting happy-go-lucky dance with bouncy syncopations that would make fun listening in isolation. As the culmination of a concerto that started with bold dramatic statements in the classic manner of Grieg and Tchaikovsky, this section reminds me of one wag’s assessment of Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto: it starts with Bach and ends with Offenbach.

In the Symphony, the second movement again has echoes of Negro spirituals and “’special effects’ such as African drums and ‘cathedral chimes’ [on this recording represented by tubular bells, though Price apparently intended these bits to be played on the organ] . . . .” The movement has an air of repose but also of seriousness that makes it a suitable companion for the first movement. Then comes the Juba dance, this time rather embarrassingly tricked out with a slide whistle, as if the dance’s humble roots and ties with later popular music of the theater (minstrel shows and vaudeville) weren’t evident enough. Again, like the last section of the Piano Concerto, it strikes a discordant note for me. But Price is not the only composer of the thirties who did this sort of thing. Randal Thompson’s mostly charming Second Symphony (1930) is disfigured, as far as I’m concerned, by a cornball cakewalk of a last movement. But then the 30s was a simpler time as well as one in which pop music and classical music didn’t inhabit such widely divided cultural spheres in most educated listeners’ imaginations.

While it’s good to hear Price’s work again, especially the skillfully-written and melodically memorable Symphony, the hybrid nature of this music militates against there being a Florence Price revival. Not that the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble players under Leslie Dunner don’t give it their all. The playing is emphatic, sympathetic, thoroughly committed, even if the orchestra sounds a bit patchy in spots. Pianist Karen Walwyn makes the most of the solo part in the Concerto, relishing the virtuoso display that Price affords her in the cadenza. Like the orchestral playing, the sound is not ideal. It’s certainly detailed and impactive enough but also somewhat boxy. The closely recorded cymbals sound splashy throughout, and in the first movement of the symphony, several of the climaxes are overloaded, resulting in some crackling bits of distortion. But despite these shortcomings, the recording does an important service, not only recalling the music of a pioneering composer but the musical landscape of Depression-era America.

—Lee Passarella

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