05 Apr 2023

PRICE: Piano Concerto in One Movement

by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – FLORENCE PRICE (1887–1953) – Born in a racially-integrated section of Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Price started her life in music at a very early age. Her first piano recital was when she was four and she published a composition (now lost) at eleven. Price left Little Rock in 1904 to attend the prestigious New England Conservatory (her mother encouraged her to tell everyone she was of Mexican descent) and spent several years teaching college music after graduation. Price composed throughout her academic years but began to focus more fully on that aspect of her musical life after 1912. Her music was well-regarded during her career, especially after she relocated to Chicago in 1927, but shamefully not well enough to sustain her relevance after death.

THE HISTORY – The classical music industry is attempting today to make amends for its many sins of omission and exclusion, and a revival of interest in Florence Price has been an important part of that effort for many institutions. For her part, Price knew what she was up against and how unlikely history was to make room for her name in the future. In an oft-quoted program note reference (this annotator included), Price wrote to the eminent conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1943. She understood that composers needed champions on the podium and hoped he would take up her cause, despite the cards stacked against her. “I have two handicaps,” she told him, “those of sex and race” and, though the maestro must certainly have appreciated her forthrightness, nothing came of the proposed partnership. There were others. Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony premiered Price’s Symphony in E minor in 1933 and it got excellent reviews (though one paper, the Chicago Defender, inexcusably left Price unnamed in their article). On Stock’s advice, she wrote her single movement piano concerto the very next season and performed it as soloist for the Chicago premiere. A second performance was immediately taken up by the Chicago Women’s Symphony and conductor Ebba Sundstrum with Price’s student Margaret bond at the keyboard. The score to concerto was, like Price herself, lost for quite some time after its moment. Composer Drew Weston was commissioned in the 2010s to reconstruct the music from a handful of orchestral parts and a two-piano rehearsal reduction. That conception of the piece was all there was until 2018 when the original manuscript showed up in St. Anne, Illinois (a place of many buried Price treasure discoveries in the 21st century). After nearly 90 years, audiences can now hear the Piano Concerto in its pure form, thanks to publisher G. Schirmer and the editing efforts of Nick Greer and Utah Symphony Principal Librarian Clovis Lark.

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1934, Leopold III became King of Belgium, the U.S.S.R. was admitted to the League of Nations, Hitler was named Führer and Alcatraz was opened.

THE CONNECTION – These concerts represent the Utah Symphony debut of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto.