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Who Was Florence Price? Why Is The Evanston Symphony Orchestra Featuring Her Symphony No. 3 Oct. 30?

Who Was Florence Price? Why Is The Evanston Symphony Orchestra Featuring Her Symphony No. 3 Oct. 30?

Compositions by Florence Price, the first widely performed female African-American composer of classical music, have experienced a strong revival in the past decade. Born in Little Rock, Ark., but active in Chicago musical circles from 1927 until her death in 1953, Price composed more than 300 works during her lifetime. The Evanston Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Lawrence Eckerling, will feature Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, composed between 1938 and 1940, as its closing work at the inaugural concert of ESO’s 76th subscription season, Oct. 30, 2022. The concert begins at 2:30 at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston.

“Not nearly enough people have heard this great symphony composed by Price,” said Maestro Eckerling. But who was Florence Price, and why is her music being performed by orchestras and smaller ensembles throughout the world, including now, the ESO?

We asked Rick Ferguson, co-founder and artistic director of Evanston-based The Musical Offering, a well-known teacher, recitalist and performer, the keyboardist in the ESO, and someone who has done quite of bit of research into Price and her music, to help with some insight. (For more on Ferguson, see Rick Ferguson Music).

Can you give us a four- or five-sentence mini-biography on Ms. Price’s life and artistic career? Who were her musical influences or teachers? How did she come to dedicating herself to composing?

Ferguson: She had a precocious talent, as well as a voracious intellect. She began piano lessons with her mom at age three and played her first public piano recital at age four. Her love of improvisation from an early age led to her work as a composer. Her home in Little Rock was a meeting place for Black musicians, writers, artists and thinkers including Frederick Douglass and his son Charles Redmond Douglass (a professional violinist). She entered the New England Conservatory of Music at age 15 and graduated with two degrees three years later. George Chadwick (then director of the conservatory) was a formative influence on Ms Price as a composer and musician, and the Women's Orchestra of Chicago allowed her the opportunity to hear her works played. Black composer William Grant Still was a childhood friend and supportive presence in her life for decades. Her time at the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago towards the end of her life—where she worked with upwards of 70 students per week—did much to solidify her teaching legacy.

Why has she suddenly received so much play in the classical music world in the past decade?  And why did she disappear off the scene after her premiere in Chicago in 1933?

Ferguson: Scholarship around Black American composers in general has gained considerable momentum in the past few decades (note the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, for instance) and Florence Price is certainly one of a growing number of Black composers whose music is being programmed more and more.

Specific to Ms Price's music, however, is the discovery of dozens of her hand-written music manuscripts in an abandoned home in Kankakee County (Ill.) in 2009 (and thereafter sent to the Florence Price Archive at the University of Arkansas). Without this discovery, we would have access to fewer than half of her more than 300 compositions. It's just an incredible story.

From your point of view as a musician, music teacher and orchestra keyboardist, what do you like the best about her work in general?

Ferguson: I find Ms Price's music to be fresh, yet familiar; accessible, yet thought-provoking; melodically rich and colorful. In all her works, I sense an inner musical storyline which engages the listener and allows space for the individual listener to create their own narrative. And she spent considerable time learning how to write for the orchestra and instrumental chamber ensembles, in addition to being a top-notch keyboardist herself.

The ESO is playing Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor Oct. 30 at 2:30 p.m. at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall as the concluding featured work on the symphony’s inaugural concert program of the 2022-2023 subscription season. What will first-time listeners to the symphony like best about it, do you think? What do you like best about it? Is it reminiscent of any music they might be familiar with?

Ferguson: It's important to bear in mind that Ms Price's 3rd Symphony was written in the late 1930's during her time of activity in Michigan as part of Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. It shows Price at the height of her abilities as a composer who effectively brought together and combined elements of traditional Western classical music, African dance rhythms and beautiful melodic writing from the American Spirituals traditions. She again shows herself to be one of the first true "fusion" composers in America who created her own musical language which communicated to a wide swath of the American public, even in highly segregated times.   

You’ve spent a lot of time studying Price and her music. What’s the most important thing about her or her music that intrigues you?

Ferguson: Her intellectual and expressive gifts manifested as a teacher, a performing musician and a composer. Ms Price was, to my mind, one of the more significant minds and voices in 20th Century American culture. In particular, as a teacher myself, I'm fascinated by her work in that realm. I continue to explore her 70-plus instructional piano pieces and understand more of her thinking about music education.  

Anything to add?

Ferguson: Scholarship surrounding her life, work and legacy is still evolving. There will be more of her music to hear, as more of her music finds its way to print. The journey into her music is just beginning!                                                    

One can subscribe to the Evanston Symphony Orchestra’s season at evanstonsymphony.org or by calling GM Fiona Queen at 847-864-8804. Single tickets for the Oct. 30 concert—which also features Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and piano soloist Inna Faliks, an ESO audience favorite joining the ESO in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—are also available on the website or by calling. Donations to the ESO can be made through the website and by phone.

For the comfort and safety of the audience, the orchestra, and staff, masks and proof of vaccination and boosters are required for attendance at the concert.

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