Classical Minnesota Stories

Composer Florence Price gets spotlight in Minnesota Orchestra's American music showcase

Florence Price poses at the piano.University of Arkansas

January 09, 2019

The Minnesota Orchestra's American Expressions Festival is featuring works by well-known men such as Barber, Bernstein, and Gershwin. But the festival also includes a symphony by an African-American woman named Florence Price.

Price was born in 1887 to a mixed-race family in Little Rock, Ark. She graduated from high school as valedictorian at 14 and then enrolled at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music. She was a standout student, earning two degrees in three years.

From there, by necessity, her professional path diverged from that of her white male contemporaries. To make ends meet, she taught and performed more than she composed. She married, had children and ultimately divorced an abusive husband. She also endured the terror of living under Jim Crow laws before moving to Chicago in the late 1920s.

She flourished creatively in the Midwest, and in June 1933 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony No. 1, making her the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. (No less than George Gershwin himself was in the audience that night.)

Thanks to years of hard work by musicians and musicologists, larger organizations are finally taking note of Price's legacy. In early February 2018, the New Yorker and the New York Times both ran articles about Price and her work. In November, music publisher G. Schirmer announced that it had acquired the rights to her catalog. On Jan. 11, a recording of her First and Fourth Symphonies will be released on the Naxos label.

Florence Price
Florence Price
University of Arkansas

Now the Minnesota Orchestra is climbing aboard the rapidly accelerating Florence Price bandwagon. This weekend it performs her Symphony No. 1 under the baton of music director Osmo Vänskä.

They're not stopping with that performance, either. Price's music will also appear in their Symphonic Adventures, Young People's Concerts and Family Concerts educational programs multiple times this year. This repeated programming of a female composer over a single season is an unusual move for an American orchestra. (For context, the Chicago Symphony is playing music by no women this season.)

Beth Kellar-Long, vice president of orchestra administration, initially suggested Price. She thought Price's work would suit the American Expressions Festival, which organizers wanted to better reflect the diversity of the American orchestral tradition.

Thanks to that tip, Vänskä began studying Price's works. He was charmed. Ahead of the festival, the orchestra produced a promotional video in which he discusses that discovery.

"This is great music," he says with enthusiasm. "I know that people are going to love the piece."

Next month, as part of its Symphonic Adventures concert series, the orchestra will play Price's First Symphony at Thomas Jefferson High School in Minneapolis. Associate conductor Akiko Fujimoto will conduct, and violist Sam Bergman will host.

The orchestra's Symphonic Adventures concerts can fly under the radar, given that they're closed to the general public. At these performances, the Minnesota Orchestra travels directly to various area high schools, giving the musicians a chance to interact with students on their home turf.

Via email, Bergman describes his role: "My job is to craft a narrative around whatever we'll be playing on those concerts, and also lead a Q&A session after the performance where the kids get to ask whatever they want of literally anyone in the orchestra. And they always have amazing questions."

Why bring Price? Why not stick to, say, Beethoven?

Beethoven will always be great, Bergman says. But there's more to it than that.

"To set down a list of important American orchestral works that every student should be able to hear in 2019 and not include names like Florence Price is a self-defeating exercise," he says. "We don't get to pretend that the voices of white men are the only ones that matter anymore if we want to have any hope of being part of the cultural conversation."

He articulates why these performances of Price's works are so important to him: "The music was always there, but the people with the ability to put it out into the world and promote it were choosing not to do so. And we all have to call ourselves to account for that kind of willful ignorance. I'm as deeply involved in the music world as anyone I know, and three years ago, I had never heard the name Florence Price. How is that possible? And more to the point, what can I do — what can we, the Minnesota Orchestra, do — to reverse that sort of whitewashing of musical history and give voice to these composers whose work deserves to be heard?"

That question remains to be answered, but programming Florence Price seems like a good start.

Minnesota Orchestra broadcast

The first part of this week's Minnesota Orchestra's American Expressions concerts will be broadcast live by Classical MPR. It features Barber's Symphony No. 1, Copland's and Shaw's Clarinet Concertos and Hanson's Symphony No. 2. Listen online at 8 p.m. Friday, with host Melissa Ousley.