The Chicago Symphony Orchestra pays tribute to Florence Price | Culture & Leisure

The Century of Progress International Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, was held from 1933 to 1934 and changed the life of composer Florence Price. It was for this international event that his first symphony was selected as one of the works for a celebration concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) conducted by Frederick Stock in June 1933.

This event marks a turning point: it is the first major work by a black woman performed by a major American orchestra.

At the beginning of May, some 89 years later, the musical director of CSO, Riccardo Muti, returns to the music of Florence Price. Muti had scheduled the CSO’s first performances of his Symphony No. 3 for spring 2020, but those concerts were canceled due to the pandemic.

Florence Price wasn’t just an American composer, she was a Chicago composer. She moved to Chicago from Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1920s and lived just north of Hyde Park in Bronzeville, where she sometimes worked as an organist when not composing. She was Margaret Bonds’ friend and teacher.

These performances of his Symphony No. 3 were treated as a kind of celebration. Each concert was preceded by a free panel discussion by Florence Price (as well as her colleague and friend William Grant Still), followed by brief chamber recitals in the Grainger Ballroom and Symphony Center Rotunda. This pre-concert attention to Price and his work was both informative and entertaining, and set the stage for a much-anticipated concert. Congratulations to the staff and volunteers of the Symphony Center who made this multi-event evening an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

With all that build up, Muti and the CSO did not disappoint. The first movement, marked Andante—Allegro, overflows with musical ideas, happily skipping from one thought to another. Muti deftly navigated the unexpected and complex mood and expression shifts brilliantly, and unveiled the blues-inspired elements. The second movement features a wonderful bassoon solo before reaching a dramatic conclusion.

The third movement is marked “Juba” for the African American dance style of that name. The music is gripping, with catchy syncopation and almost endless energy. Muti and his orchestra filled the music with fire and defiant jubilation. Price made extensive use of percussion (there were six percussionists plus a timpanist) and one of the many highlights is the xylophone solo, delivered with startling power by Cynthia Yeh. The moving melodies of the final movement were played with great excitement. The audience loved it during the Saturday night performance, giving Muti and the CSO a standing ovation.

Before the Price Symphony, which was the final work of the program, was a short work by black composer William Grant Still. Price and Still grew up in the same neighborhood of Little Rock and attended the same church. They eventually became lifelong friends.

Still was a pioneer for black composers, having achieved a large number of premieres. He was the first man of color to: have a major work performed by a major American orchestra, conduct a major American orchestra, conduct a symphony orchestra in the Deep South, have an opera performed by a major American company, have a televised opera, and conduct on national radio.

The work selected for this concert was Still’s “Mother and Child” in a version for string orchestra of what was originally composed for violin and piano. Muti presided over a refined performance, with a brilliant and silky sound. The flowery phrases brought out the tenderness of the music. There were serene moments that dissolved into melancholy. This short book was both moving and beautiful.

I believe that Muti wanted to pay homage to these two star composers and to do so he associated them with two works by Beethoven, one of the most talented and well-known classical composers. Essentially, he signaled to the audience that Price and Still belonged to the greats.

The concert opened with the Egmont Overture, with Muti bringing out both tense urgency and heroic triumph.

This was followed by a splendid rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Muti offered a gracefully understated second movement, which featured delightfully delicate pizzicato and expressive phrasing. The Scherzo buzzed with percussive power while the final movement was imbued with a crisp, snappy playing that served Beethoven well.

It was a wonderful performance and the attendance was excellent. As you headed out you heard nothing but praise for the music, for the performance and for the evening. It was nothing short of a great success. Exactly what we would wish for Florence Price.

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