The ALTO recording of the music of Florence Price (ALC1461) – Mississippi River Suite; The Oak; Symphony No. 3 – with the former Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra of San Francisco, led by Apo Hsu playing up a storm is yet one more invaluable offering by the British label ALTO whose mission has encompassed to restore and re-release historic recordings that had fallen into neglect.
The Oak, a brief tone poem composed in 1934 is the briefest and most modest of three works included in the ALTO release.
From the same year, the Mississippi River Suite (1934) subtitled “The river and songs of those dwelling upon its banks” comprises seven sections which incorporate the spirituals Stand Sill Jordan, Deep River, Go Down Moses, and Nobody Knows de Trouble I Seen – music at times profoundly sad at others unabashedly joyful that in Price’s reworking ranges from the bucolic to the rhythmically energetic.
Written six years later the four movement, classically structured, harmonically daring, largely tonal but with hints at atonality now and then Symphony No. 3, evidences the work of a more mature, more willing to take risks artist.
As one listens to the superb Alto recording of music by Florence Beatrice Price, questions linger in one’s mind. Had this prolific composer been born one hundred years later than 1887 would her career have taken a different turn? Perhaps. Would Hollywood or Broadway or the image-less radio of the 1930’s and 1940’s have welcomed an immensely gifted black female composer with a knack for writing music that straddled the folk and classical idioms? Undoubtedly not then. Maybe not even now.
Certainly, the visionary New England Conservatory of Music (of which this writer is a proud alumnus) offered Price a fine education that equipped her to be not only a composer but a pianist, organist, and music teacher, but not a white pigmentation. Price, a black woman born in Jim Crow south – Little Rock, Arkansas, fled north to Chicago at age 40, living there in modest circumstances until her death in 1953.
Price is noted as the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Too little too late by today’s standards, considering that Price penned four symphonies, four concertos, choral works, art songs, and chamber music.
The classical music world is just beginning to crack its doors open and welcoming composers – male and female – of non-Caucasian ethnicities. But it moves at a snail’s pace. This listener is grateful to receive the off the beaten path releases of the Alto label (https://altocd.com) that honor unsung heroes like Florence Price.
Rafael de Acha © 2022