As of Thursday, nearly 90 years have passed since Florence B. Price became the first black woman to see a symphonic work performed by a major orchestra: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, her hometown ensemble.
It’s been almost 90 years since the Chicago Daily News declared this piece, its Symphony No. 1, “worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.” And nearly 60 years since Price’s daughter, writing to the CSO after her mother’s death, implored them to take over the symphony. According to musicologist Douglas Shadle – who is co-writing a biography of Price with pianist and researcher Samantha Ege (Oxford University Press) – the orchestra not only passed up the opportunity, but confessed that they had lost the score of the historic performance of 1933.
Price’s simplistic, sadly mainstream, account is that she was recently “rediscovered” alongside a cache of her sheet music rotting away at her former summer home in St. Anne, Illinois. But Price was never forgotten. His work has long been celebrated in the music programs of historically black colleges and universities and by fellow Black Renaissance luminaries in Chicago. That same year, Price’s daughter petitioned the CSO, an elementary school in Kenwood (now closed) was named after her mother. Despite his own struggles to break into the white musical mainstream, William Grant Still — who grew up a few blocks from Price’s family in Little Rock, Arkansas — also championed and arranged the elder composer’s music.
One wonders what Price’s champions would have thought on Thursday, hearing his music fill not just Orchestra Hall but the entire Symphony Center complex. His string quartets, performed by members of the Civic Orchestra and young musicians from the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, echoed through the rotunda and upstairs ballroom before the concert. Prior to that, a pre-concert panel of Price scholars and current CSO Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery discussed the symphonist’s remarkable life and even more remarkable music.
Music director Riccardo Muti addressed the CSO’s long caesura of Price and other black composers with a passionate but candid statement from the stage, as he did when he conducted Price’s music for the last time in September.
“Human beings are often stupid,” Muti told the crowd to applause. “We played last week’s music from (Jessie Montgomery) and tonight’s composers because they wrote – and wrote – great music, not for any other reason. … The musicians of the Chicago Symphony believe in what they play.
And you could hear it. The strings of the CSO savored “Mother and Child” by William Grant Still, a tender seven-minute work originally composed for violin and piano and never before performed by the orchestra. Vocal lines and lush harmonies briefly give way to short, choppy violin and viola solos, played with feverish intensity by concertmaster Robert Chen and guest principal violist Ben Ullery. After bewitching with its full bloom, CSO’s “Mother and Child” floated in nothing, led without a truncheon — like the whole evening — by Muti. The respectful silence that followed was, for many seconds, interrupted only by a few buzzes of approval from the audience.
In a rare double title, the CSO associates Price’s symphony with that of Beethoven in these concerts: his Symphony No. 4, little known mainly for the misfortune of having been written between his “Eroica” and the famous Fifth. The Fourth is subtle, smart, handcrafted – a tough sell alongside its hummable, stupendous siblings. The frowning Beethoven has always been easier to program, and Thursday saw plenty of that too, with Muti and the CSO opening the concert with a dramatic, texture-rich “Egmont” overture.
The ensuing Fourth was typically quiet, as is Muti’s habit in Beethoven’s symphonies. Nevertheless, it was again a reminder of the understated riches of this score: deft harmonic twists, unconventional French horn beacons in its inner movements, and particular deference to the middle voices of the orchestra. (Until principal bassoonist Keith Buncke, who nailed the symphony’s fleet, writing carefully for this instrument.) The strings easily picked up the symphony’s call-and-response patterns in the first movement and spun the things in the second with their dotted-pace engine. What relaxation overcame the minuet of the third movement vanished before a very Sturm-und-Drang final movement, the OSC responding gently to Muti’s impatient impatience.
Nor were the Beethoven and Price symphonies strange bedfellows. Both works are remarkably simpatico: both are eclipsed by the more popular and explicitly programmatic symphonies of their creators, but stand out for their understated ingenuity. Price’s symphonies all replace the minuet and third-movement trio sanctified by European classical tradition with the rhythm of a tapping juba, the step-and-clap dance pioneered by captive Africans when their slavers banned the instruments percussion. Beethoven’s minuet riffs on the dance form by adding a second trio, and Price similarly inserts two sultry andantino interludes for muted trumpet and xylophone (emotionally performed Thursday by Esteban Batallán and Cynthia Yeh) in his own Juba.
The symphony and the performers were also well matched. Muti’s affinity for Price’s musical language was evident even in his one-movement Andante moderato earlier this season. It only multiplied under his direction of Price’s Third, whose intricate detail and thoughtful transitions often eclipsed the recent Grammy-winning recording of the same work by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
And Price’s lavish but solid orchestration brought light to every section of the orchestra. The CSO brass played the expansive chorale at the start of the symphony with the divine rumble of storm clouds, the strings reminiscent of the caramel sweetness of Still’s “Mother and Child” in the Andante second movement, and a section of augmented percussion passionately evoked the rhythmic complexity of Juba.
In perhaps his most obvious nod to symphonic convention, Price concludes with a brilliant, almost march-like fourth movement. Alongside the rest of the symphony, this might seem like the required pyrotechnics.
But something about it lodged in this reviewer’s throat, then sent their view from the orchestra’s lower balcony swimming. Perhaps it was the way the orchestra’s powerful pronouncements echoed over the arches of Orchestra Hall, that place and ensemble that Price knew so well. She should have been there to hear that. If it hadn’t been for the whims of the others now also long gone, she might have.
But the fourth movement is provocative. It is determined. Its closing chords hadn’t finished ringing out when the whole Orchestra Hall—then, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra itself—represented Florence Price.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave, tickets $35 to $275. For more information, visit cso.org or call Customer Services at 312-294-3000.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our coverage of classical music. The Chicago Tribune maintains complete editorial control over assignments and content.