The music of the first black composer gains local recognition

Florence Price was the first black composer to have a symphony performed by a large orchestra in the 1930s.

BOULDER, Colo. – Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra (PMC) kicks off its 16th season this weekend with “Apotheosis of the Dance,” featuring works by Beethoven, Florence Price and Ben Morris. The program is the regional premiere of the original version of Florence Price’s “Piano Concerto in One Movement”. Price is the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a large orchestra, and her music was performed frequently throughout the 1930s and 1940s. This weekend’s performance is part of a mission for the musical director and conductor. orchestra of PMC, Cynthia Katsarelis.

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“Our mission is to make traditional, diverse and new music and we’ve always dedicated about 30% of our schedule to music that is underrepresented for unfair reasons,” Katsarelis said. “About 1/3 of the music we make is by composers of color or female composers or Jewish composers who were lost in the Holocaust.”

Florence Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She attended the New England Conservatory of Boston at the age of 15 where she studied organ, piano and composition. She wrote songs or transcribed spirituals that the first black opera singer Marian Anderson sang around the world.

“She was a very active and successful songwriter with great reviews for everything she did,” Katsarelis said. “Somehow his music was lost to us until the last decade, when some of it was found, including the orchestration of the piano concerto.”

Katsarelis said Price’s full score and orchestral parts for the piano concerto were found in 2019 in the attic of a house once believed to belong to the composer.

“We’re in the first wave of orchestras to do his original orchestration and it’s just a great piece,” Katsarelis said. “It’s a wonderful piece of 1930s Americana and all that music that’s influenced by the African-American context that at this point we embrace it as American music and that’s wonderful.”

Katsarelis said the first movement of the concerto had the sound of a spiritual call and response and a juba dance – an African-American dance derived from the plantations during slavery. This is the music that concert pianist Jennifer Hayghe says is part of Price’s Americana and perhaps the composer’s downfall.

“We hear all parts of his America in this piece and maybe that’s why it hasn’t been performed for many years,” Hayghe said. “Classical music has certainly contributed to systematic racism, and I think everyone has realized how many incredible pieces, how many incredible composers, how many incredible musicians we haven’t let shine over the years.”

Hayghe is the star pianist soloist of the concerto. She said she was thrilled to be part of a trend to resurrect music from underrepresented artists.

“People all over the country are starting to play this piece again,” Hayghe said. “So here in Colorado, we’re up there with this tendency to play it.”

Katsarelis and Hayghe hope their audiences leave inspired by Florence Price and her music that goes beyond the stage.

“It took terrible things to open our eyes and open our hearts,” Katsarelis said. “It’s time to really appreciate and appreciate what everyone has to bring to this, and Florence Price has brought something really special, and I think that can be very healing.”

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