By George Basler
In 1933 Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor premiered to great acclaim when it was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “It is a faultless work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion … worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory,” the Chicago Daily News wrote at the time.
Not a bad review. But even more noteworthy were the circumstances surrounding the concert. Price was the first female Black composer to have her work performed by a major American orchestra.
The Binghamton Community Orchestra will salute the groundbreaking composer when it performs one of her works Saturday (Feb. 25) evening at Maine-Endwell Senior High School. The performance is part of a program, “Florence Price and Dramatic Delights.” that also features works by Giacomo Puccini, Hector Berlioz and Camille Saint-Saens.
“Price is quickly becoming an iconic American composer of symphonic works,” said BCO Music Director Evan Meccarello, who will conduct the program.
This recognition wasn’t always the case. Price, who died in 1963 at age 66, was without a doubt a prodigy. She played her first piano recital at age 4 and had her first composition published when she was 11 years old. But she had the misfortune of arriving on the scene when the classical music world marginalized female composers, not to mention Black female composers.
Moreover, many of her compositions — more than 300 — were thought to be lost. Her name drifted into semi-obscurity.
But that changed because of a chance discovery in 2009. A couple had purchased a rundown, abandoned house near Chicago. As they were going through the house, they found piles of musical manuscripts, books and personal papers boxes with Price’s name on them. Included in the material were Price’s “lost” compositions. The house had been Price’s summer home.
This chance discovery renewed interest in the composer and spurred a reappraisal of her work. “It was really exciting” because it illustrated how Price had “broken all kinds of barriers,” Meccarello said.
Price’s work is very much in the style of romantic symphonies of the 19th century. But she also “draws on the deep roots of her own culture,” notably Black spirituals and church music, pop compositions and African dances, Meccarello said.
The Binghamton Community Orchestra will perform one of Price’s “lost” works, Symphony No. 4 in D minor. The symphony’s third movement incorporates Juda, an African dance brought to this country by slaves, into the symphony, Meccarello said. This section has the feel of pre-jazz, ragtime music, he added.
The performance of Price’s symphony is not the only thing special about Saturday’s concert. Another highlight will be the participation of Ashley Park, a local seventh grader and violinist, who won the Southern Tier Music Teachers Association’ Concerto Competition.
“She is a very young artist already making her mark,” Meccarello said. Park will play Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” with the community orchestra.
IF YOU GO: The Binghamton Community Orchestra’s concert “Florence Price and Dramatic Delights” will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at Maine-Endwell Senior High School, 750 Farm-to-Market Road, Endwell. There will be a pre-concert talk at 6:15 p.m. Tickets at $10 will be available at the door.