Florence Price symphony receives breathtaking Symphony Center debut with CSO, Riccardo Muti
Put simply, this musical thunderclap from the past was a triumph. A cut to his finger early in the concert forced Muti to lead the orchestra sans baton.
Few if any composers in recent history have made a more spectacular comeback than Florence Price, whose music was all but forgotten after her death in 1953 but is rapidly being rediscovered and revived by myriad ensembles large and small.
Another milestone step in that revival came Thursday evening in the first of three concerts at Symphony Center, when Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented its first-ever performance of Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor. Put simply, this musical thunderclap from the past was a triumph.
Price’s posthumous obscurity was no doubt due in part to her melodic music being out of step with serialism and other avant-garde directions in 20th-century music, but it seems clear that the biggest reasons had to do with the double prejudice surrounding her being Black and a woman.
When: 1:30 p.m. May 6; 8 p.m. May 7
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
What it did not have anything to do with was the high quality of the music, a truth that is only reinforced by this thrilling, substantial work that is emerging at last as one of the major American symphonies of the 20th century.
Although this performance came 82 years after the piece was written and one year shy of the 70th anniversary of the composer’s death, what was important Thursday night was that this tragically belated local debut finally happened at all.
It was especially significant for the CSO to present this work because Price lived in Chicago during the most productive years of her career and because the orchestra premiered her Symphony No. 1 in E minor in 1933, making it the first composition by an African-American woman to be presented by a major orchestra.
There are so many things to praise about this Third Symphony, starting with Price’s sophisticated use of elements from Black music — she writes that she was attempting to portray a “cross-section of Negro life” — without sinking into pastiche. Another is her inventive and quite progressive deployment of a wide range of percussion, including the use of just one emphatic note from the orchestral bells or glockenspiel as a kind of musical punctuation mark at strategic points.
Much could be written about the symphony’s first movement alone, a big, sprawling section with complex, ever-shifting cross-currents, with certain moments that have a bluesy feel and others that almost seem to swing. Next comes a beautiful, slow second movement with long, flowing lines anchored by fulsome, full-bodied playing in the strings.
The heart of this work is arguably the fabulously spirited, kick-up-your-heels third movement which is based on the African-American juba dance and wonderfully accented with castanets, wood block and a xylophone solo featuring principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh. A sassy, driving, blues-tinged finale rounds things out.
Orchestras often present debuts on the first half of concerts and then return after intermission with a familiar classic, but for this program, Muti reversed that order, opening the concert with two staples by Ludwig van Beethoven — Overture to “Egmont,” Op. 84, and Symphony No. 4 in B flat Major, Op. 60 – and building toward Price’s symphony, the evening’s big pay-off.
The second half began with the orchestra’s first performances of “Mother and Child” (1943), by William Grant Still, another fine Black composer. He attended the same high school in Little Rock, Ark., as Price and the two were lifelong friends.
This 10-minute suite, which was originally written for violin and piano and later arranged for string orchestra, is a lovely, at times wistful, work written in a post-Romantic style with lilting melodies and plush harmonies.
Though in no way sad, it is nonetheless reminiscent in some ways of Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio for Strings, which is a string-orchestra arrangement of a movement from his String Quartet, Op. 11. The Adagio was written seven years earlier, and it seems plausible that Still was influenced by the work. Muti and the orchestra delivered a suitably ardent version of this work, with a handsome solo by concertmaster Robert Chen.
According to a symphony spokeswoman, Muti cracked his baton early in the concert and suffered a minor cut to one of his fingers. He could be seen holding what appeared to be a green handkerchief in his left hand during the Beethoven symphony, and he unflappably led most of that piece and the rest of the concert without a baton.