“Pianist Michelle Cann and conductor Donald Runnicles” presented “Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement from 1934” Thursday

Michelle Canné
(Credit: Jeff Roffman)

By Pierre Ruhe, ArtsATL

March 4, 2022

Thursday felt like a special night in Symphony Hall. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has programmed the music of Florence Price before, as recently as last year, but for the first time the orchestra was celebrating the arrival of an important new voice.

Born in Arkansas, price escaped the Jim Crow South as part of the Great Migration in the early 20th century, and launched what might have been — should have been — an important career as a composer. Her Symphony No. 1 won a prize and was performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1932 — the first time a major American orchestra performed music by a Black woman composer. Chicago asked Price for more. Marian Anderson sang one of Price’s Negro Spiritual arrangements at her historic 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

But for obvious reasons that track with much of US history — “I have two handicaps, those of sex and race,” she wrote — her music did not gain wide acceptance. Several key works were published and remained in print after her death in 1953, allowing her to hover at the outer edge of the repertoire. She wasn’t so much forgotten as ignored. Over the past decade, she’s had several vociferous champions, including a former ASO assistant conductor, Mei-Ann Chen, who price programs wherever an orchestra will accept it, from Chicago to San Diego to even the Alabama Symphony.

Thursday, to introduce Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement from 1934, pianist Michelle Cann and conductor Donald Runnicles carried microphones to the center stage. Cann, who teaches at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and was here making her ASO debut, spoke excitedly of how this Concerto was known only through rehearsal parts, not a full score.

Miraculously, about a decade ago, the new owners of Price’s dilapidated old house in Illinois discovered the boxes of her music in the attic. The full score to the Concerto and other major works — some “lost,” some unknown — were among them, and in 2018 most of this discovered music became public. (Hearing this sensational story, Runnicles put his foot in his mouth and acted all gobsmacked. “No one in classical music had ever heard of Florence Price!” he clucked. Coming from a conductor with an international career, it’s this willful ignorance — we might call it smugness — that led to Price’s forced obscurity.)

That’s a lot of heavy baggage for so charming and enjoyable a piece. Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement opens with a brief, showy orchestral opening, and the piano soon takes over with power chords announcing a commanding solo part. Despite its rather short length, just under 20 minutes, it has the style and substance of the great piano concertos. It unfolds with familiar gestures and a late 19th-century soundworld, notably with a folksy vibe and African American idioms. For a composer, this blending of classical structure with vernacular language was a framework that Dvorak had made popular a generation earlier.

Although it’s titled “in one movement,” the piece is laid out clearly in three sections. The second, leisurely and agreeable, features a long, soulful oboe solo. It is backed by what sounded like expressive commentary from the piano, as call-and-response, with just a hint of melodious, blue-note Gershwin. Gorgeous.

The music then slides easily into the energetic final section, based on the Juba dance rhythm, aka the Hambone, joyous and free. Cann and Runnicles made a tight partnership throughout. The audience ate it up. Obviously, belatedly, this satisfying concerto is ripe to enter the symphonic repertoire.

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