in: Reviews

February 25, 2018

Celebrating African-American Artistry


Florence Price

The Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra surely decided to program Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor before the New Yorker’s Alex Ross wrote a major piece about her, with the New York Times and NPR quickly following suit. Price has been gradually gaining in recognition for years, but the recent discovery of a large trove in an abandoned attic near Chicago has dramatically fueled the fire of interest in her music, as has a widely-seen documentary on her which will be repeated on WGBH starting March 30th. The Albany label release of the first recordings of unknown materials including the Violin Concertos had triggered Ross’s interest.

On Wednesday at Arlington’s First Parish Unitarian Universalist, the APO brought satisfactions with Price’s Symphony and two more recent works by African American composers.

The Minnesota Sinfonia commissioned William C. “Billy” Banfield to write a work that centered on water and themes of African-American culture. His Symphony No. 4, Streams of Consciousness, creates keenly vivid scenes in its four short movements, and draws on several melodies collected in an African American village in Colombia, as well as melodies from the North American diaspora. Banfield spoke briefly and genially about the work, and also expressed his thanks to the orchestra and audience. The first movement grows out of a shimmering stillness — a roll on a cymbal and a violin crescendo. Swirling melodic fragments of different speeds and length overlap in a patterned texture, a flowing and energetic stream – a vast river enlivened by raindrops?

The next is a more urban scene, one of religious contemplation: a soulful hymn, juxtaposed with banal modernity — the clatter of traffic and car horns. Then in the third movement, a sprightly, energetic tune is used as an ostinato. Other accompaniments and melodies are paired with it, and it moves through the orchestra in an engaging set of variations.

The forth recalls aspects of the first — both in its layered textures as well as in some of the melodies. But there is a more intense driving energy, syncopated rhythms, piercing fragments of melody in jarring pizzicatos, and cascades, rivulets of notes up and down in the winds and strings. The evocative scenes end with this vital crush of energy. This series of vivid soundscapes is atmospheric and exhilarating, and there is also something remarkably unpretentious (and refreshing) about a symphony so short.

The title Streams of Consciousness plays on but contradicts the conventional phrase. Not just an individual’s mental meanderings, it deals more broadly with the consciousness that a common people share; the music brings them together in a shared stream. Banfield suggests real streams — of water, and also as sites of conscious communities. But the title is rather offputting; perhaps just Streams?

I know Adolphus Hailstork’s music through recordings, but cannot recall encountering any of it in Boston performances. (The BSO’s Database list two Pops performances, but no BSO ones). The works I have heard have all been very striking.

He completed the Two Romances for Viola and Orchestra in 1997. Lovely and moving they become a perfect vehicle for such a charismatic and captivating performer as Ashleigh Gordon. The first begins with a flute introducing the haunting motive: exploring an upward leap of a seventh, then descending, a jagged but languid spiral. Surrounded by a hush of strings the flute hands the theme to the viola, and the legato of those large leaps give the theme its both its energy and its warmth. Gordon’s viola was throaty and evocative in the low range, and, although intense in the higher range, not losing its richness or warmth. A middle section starts with a pulsing ostinato in the harp, bringing a more pensive quality and darker mood as the poignant theme is explored and exchanged between the flute, harp and a solo violin. The luscious sonorities included harp harmonics. The warm, pastoral quality returns, so the ending is gently reflective and meditative. Gordon’s organization Castle of our Skins has previously brought a range of little-known repertoire to Boston-area listeners as typified by BMInt reviews HERE and HERE 

The second Romance was more of a dreamy conversation, a relaxed ethereal exchange of ideas taking place between the soloist, strings and winds. The conversation becomes passionate, but not heated or irate. The passions are shared ones, and the discussion winds down gently.

Price’s Symphony constituted the entire second half. There ought to be many, many recordings of this work; sadly there is only one. But that is to be rectified soon, as the Fort Smith Symphony in Price’s home state of Arkansas has contracted with Naxos to record all four.

Comparisons of this symphony by Price with Dvořák’s New World Symphony are obvious, but Price creates unique (although often-folk inspired), strongly chiseled and highly memorable melodies. Her harmonic language is steeped in the late-19th century. There is great drama here, given effective pacing and structure. One particular Dvořákian quality is apparent in the sectional quality of the coda of the first movement, with hushed transitions between the segments.

The second movement, Largo, Maestoso, begins with a gorgeous hymn in noble phrases intoned by the brass, with woodwind murmurings in between. A contrasting section offers a heartfelt response in shorter phrases by the strings. Again, Price wrote her own original melodies, but I felt this piece could take on its own life as a choral work, if given appropriate words.

A playful third movement would be at home in the theatre (and reminds us that Price did in fact work as an organist accompanying silent films). Its Rag-inspired syncopations and banjo-inspired sonorities are upbeat and full of fun. The final Presto is also a lighthearted caper, a romping jig in a rondo form.

Conductor-flutist Orlando Cela

This orchestra is to be commended for its both its brilliant, insightful and revelatory programming as well as its energy and organizational skills. Orlando Cela presided clearly and gracefully, seeming to enjoy good rapport with the ensemble. Of course as a community group, it is made up of amateurs with both strengths and weaknesses. One wants more precision in the string playing and richness in the sound; I wonder if an acoustic shell might prevent the sound from going up into the rafters. The brass and winds were sometimes beautiful and sensitive, but, well, not always. The performances were compelling and although not ideal, the concert certainly served a great purpose in introducing a large and varied audience to this little-known repertoire. What a boon to the community that this concert could be offered free, and I was happy that it was well attended. Many children were in the audience, and all were quite rapt and attentive. Cela welcomed us with some perfectly chosen words, which included a moving tribute to the musicologist, Rae Linda Brown, who died unexpectedly last year, and who did so much to further Florence Price’s music. She edited the two complete symphonies (her thoughtful preface can be read in full HERE)

I hope that this visionary programming, that emphasizes and celebrates the great diversity of our musical tradition, and effectively demonstrates that diversity is its strength, will be noted by a wide range of ensembles, especially influential professional ones.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.  Her website is here.

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