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Florence Comes Home

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Florence Beatrice Price

At the lovely, wind-swept Dane Estate last night, Shelter Music Boston gave a concert devoted to the XXth-century composer Florence Price, who came to Boston in 1903 to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. Mentored by George Chadwick and Frederick Converse, Price graduated with honors in 1906. She went on to compose over 300 works, suffer hardships, including homelessness, only to be forgotten and buried. Much as I would like to describe Shelter Music Boston’s inspiring dedication to bring live concert music to our local shelters and sheltering environments, I will focus rather on the evening’s music because it was so exceptionally beautiful.

The first half of the concert featured a chamber opera about the accidental discovery of Price’s letters and manuscripts in an abandoned house in St Anne, Illinois. Entitled Florence Comes Home, the opera was commissioned by Shelter Music Boston from Francine Trester, who teaches composition at Berklee School of Music. Trester wrote both the score (for soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone and string quartet) and the libretto. Responding to a question from the audience, Trester testified that “seeing Price’s own handwriting” in the archives at the Little Rock Arkansas Library, had greatly moved her.

Florence Comes Home opened hauntingly with solemn, anxious and tragic chords in the strings. The effect was to warn us right from the start that we were about to confront our whole painful, hushed, occulted American history of injustice, homelessness and terror — and we would not be able to avert our gaze or shut our ears. Observing the classical rules of unity of time and place, Trester chose “an abandoned house in St Anne, Illinois,” as the scene and the moment when the new owners discover the stash of Price’s papers as the event. We certainly needed no props to visualize the dilapidated house as Vicki (mezzo-soprano Carrie Cheron) softly sang “Hard to believe /This house was once a home” and her husband Darrell (bass-baritone RaShaun Campell) added the vivid detail “That fallen tree/ Broken in the yard” with a marvelously clear, strong yet tender voice. Subliminally, we heard him mourn the fallen tree — Price herself was the majestic fallen oak, as humbly tragic as the splintered ship mast of a collective shipwreck. Vicki and Darrell went on to sing of their hope of repairing the damaged house, fixing the sunken floors — but then, time veers magically to an eternal present tense as the ghost of Florence Price (soprano Brianna Robinson) comes to them, speaks to them, sings to them of her life and trials as a woman composer with “negro blood in her veins,” rejected, ignored, abused, made homeless, and then forgotten and buried. With stunningly liquid music in the mingled strings and voices, and a straight-forward yet intricately structured score (I kept thinking “how does Trester achieve such complex music effects while remaining modernist, clear and down-to-earth?”), the untold story of Price’s life unfolded in shifting rhythms and fitful spasms of memory.  

The score and story crested twice. First, a sort of vast clearing of hope came to pass when Ghost Florence reminisced about her childhood, her parents “painters of landscapes/ Sight and sound/ Reason to love and live.” Brianna Robinson phrased her delivery of the soaring aria perfectly into a soft but radiant hymn-like adagio, implying that Price’s religious sensitivity emerged from the lost paradise of her family’s enlightened intelligence and capacity to shield her from the surrounding darkness of Jim Crow Arkansas. Trester gave the second structural crest and effective point of musical culmination to Ghost Florence probing the very process of artistic creativity by revealing that “My broken foot/Was it autumn?…” is what gave her the respite to “pick up” her pen and write “A Symphony/ My very first/ E minor/ Number one” — a sisterly tribute across time and boundaries by Trester to her fellow composer, acknowledging the secret plight of women in quasi-mythological, quasi-Freudian terms: “Were it not/For brokenness/ I might not have begun.” This second, marvelous crest ushered in the last third of the opera, in which Vicki and Darrell resolve to salvage the scattered leaves and to help restore Price to her rightful place in history. Symbolically, what Trester’s powerful music and libretto taught us is that repairing the ruins of our American House consists, not in building new physical mansions, but in acknowledging and appeasing the injured ghosts of our past. Bravo Francine Trester! Bravo Shelter Music Boston! A deeper and more meaningful musical moment could not have brought your audience home with more radical tenderness. Chamber Opera? With pared-down means, Trester created something as wide and comprehensive as anything Puccini wrote.

So: what was Price’s music like? The second half of the concert featured Price’s String Quartet of ca. 1927 (with later revisions), Folksongs in Counterpoint, performed here with Adrian Anantawan (1st violin), Julie Leven, Founder and Artistic Director of Shelter Music Boston (2nd violin), Ashleigh Gordon (viola) and Javier Caballero (cello). They chose to start with the second folksong, “Clementine,” which they imbued with a nostalgic, bitter-sweet edge, emphasizing a deliberately “unintended” darkness scattered mysteriously in the rhythmic complexity. They subtly evoked the sorrow and pity of oblivion, treating the score as a series of probing variations that led to a critical mass of grief and covert, but fierce reproach. The second folksong, serving as an adagio movement, “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” evoked spiritual yearning and a vast treasure trove of inward calm and joyous trust, echoing, in reverse, Trester’s score for Ghost Florence’s happy childhood memories. The third folksong, serving now as a scherzo, was a lively, jaunty contrapuntal version of “Shortnin’ Bread.”

Julie Leven and Francine Trester

The Shelter Music Boston quartet beautifully brought out the distinctly exciting, urban character of Price’s score, implying that Southern nostalgia for home cookin’ and new intimations of ragtime emerged as part-and-parcel of the African-American Migration North, infused with new energy but also slammed with new obstacles. The quartet ended with a somber, elegant transformation of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” beginning with a haunting rendition of the theme in the solo cello, carefully articulated by Javier Caballero, who infused it with a lyrical open-ended uncertainty. The familiar theme then passed into the other strings, turning into a surprising autumnal serenade, highly abstracted from its root, shivering with gold, russet and dying wind-torn motifs, full of lyrical self-restraint à la late Fauré. Price’s deep personal elegance and her passion for counterpoint as a way to create a realm of beauty, enfolded upon itself, lofty but tender, and far from the madding crowd.

We learned from Trester’s opera that Price had written to Serge Koussevitsky in 1943, poignantly acknowledging that she had “two handicaps,” those of “sex and race.” She never received a reply. Is it time to repair Koussevitsky’s hasty decision? One of Price’s most memorable scores is her tone poem, Mississippi River Suite. Let us urge Andris Nelsons to consider programming it. And let us congratulate Shelter Music Boston for bringing Florence Price home.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.

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