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Florence Beatrice Price: Symphony n° 3 in C minor [1] – The Mississippi River [2] – Ethiopia’s Shadow in America [3]
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, John Jeter (conductor)
Recording: Studio 6, ORF Funkhaus, Vienna, Austria (March 12, 2020 [1], April 28, 2021 [2], April 29, 2021 [3]) World Premiere Recording [3] – 66’48
Naxos American Classics 8.559897 – Booklet in English

Florence Price (1887-1953), a Black American composer, is posthumously receiving the recognition she deserved but did not receive in her lifetime. This is not to say her creations were entirely ignored in the 20th century. In 1933, for example, her Symphony n° 1 was the first large-scale symphonic work by a woman of color to be performed by a major U.S. orchestra (the Chicago Symphony). But today, orchestras in The States and Europe are performing her symphonic works, including three of her four symphonies (the second symphony is lost, but is being restored by scholars), while she is also increasingly heard in chamber ensembles and piano recitals.

In addition to her symphonies, Price composed concertos, concert overtures and suites as well as string quartets, a quintet and many other selections. Creating a heart-wrenching image of genius ignored, much of her music was discovered in 2009 in a dilapidated, abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois, nearly a half century after her death. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music where she studied with George Whitefield Chadwick, Price infused her work with an authentic African-American voice, incorporating spirituals, rag and jazz elements throughout her compositions. Interestingly, two male Black American composers of a generation later, William Grant Still (also tutored by Chadwick) and Ulysses Kay, also included these elements in their compositions.

The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of John Jeter, a Price advocate and enthusiast, is bringing several symphonic works by this composer to the attention of an international audience. Price’s Symphony n° 3 is the star attraction in this collection, but listeners may be even more interested in hearing the The Mississippi River and the even less well-known tone poem, Ethiopia’s Shadow in America.

First performed in 1940 with government sponsorship under the Work Projects Administration (WPA), the Symphony n° 3 is well crafted and provides a wide range of emotional connections, all brought out with distinction and precision by Jeter, longtime music director of the Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The first of its four movements opens slowly and gracefully with expressive brass instruments and builds dramatically as the composer weaves in phrases from Spirituals, perhaps the most authentic and enduring musical style to emerge from The Americas. The second movement begins with a languid oboe solo, melting into a reverie that could easily work as program music, evoking a lazy summer afternoon on the bank of a river. Price substitutes “Juba,” a lively dance developed by enslaved people on plantations, for the traditional scherzo movement. The work becomes ever more complex and appealing as the fourth movement hurls toward a satisfying conclusion.

One could call Price’s The Mississippi River “the American Moldau,” but I think it holds its own with other American river portraits in music, such as Ferde Grofé’s Mississippi Suite from 1925 and his Hudson River Suite from 1955. Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Deep River are some of the Spirituals blended into Price’s impressions of the river she knew so well, from its peaceful wakening at dawn to times of turbulence and introspection.

The album concludes with Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, another example of Price’s unique style combining sophisticated form, memorable melodic invention and a driving creativity and intelligence. Price provided a programmatic narrative for this work in three connected movements. The first is the arrival of enslaved people of color in America, followed by the resignation and faith of the enslaved. The work ends with a musical portrayal of the adaptation of people of color to their lives in the New World, but it is not an easy adaptation by any means. Price won an honorable mention for the piano version of this work in the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker music contest, but the music was lost until the treasure trove of Price manuscripts was discovered in 2009.

Fortunately for us, tireless scholars continue to recover and restore the works of this important figure in classical music history. Florence Price is a role model for all those committed to following their dreams and overcoming barriers of bias and intolerance.

Linda Holt




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