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Joined: Nov 2015
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Hank M Offline OP
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In the past couple of years, the Philadelphia Orchestra has made a special effort to program works by female and African-American composers. Florence Price, who lived from 1887 to 1953, happens to fit both categories. But after hearing a performance of her “Piano Concerto in One Movement,” it’s clear that her inclusion on an orchestra program is much more than an exercise in checking the boxes. This is a piece that deserves to be heard on its own merit.

This piece was the highlight of one of the orchestra’s Digital Stage programs, first available for streaming on February 18, but also available for the convenience of the viewer for one week following that date. I accessed this program on Sunday, February 21. In order to accommodate pandemic-required distancing on the Verizon Hall stage, the orchestra was reduced in size to about 30 players. This wouldn’t work for a Mahler symphony, for instance, but reducing the orchestra to chamber size was no impediment for the works on this program. In fact, experiencing the performance in this fashion allows for camera work that focuses on particular musicians when their instruments are featured in each piece. Also, as noted above, the viewer can pick the time—within certain bounds—when to “attend the concert.” And I can’t help mentioning that the price for this concert was $17.00, far less than the price of a ticket and associated expenses for an in-person concert.

Although entitled a concerto “in one movement” and played without pause, the piece has three distinct sections. The musical language of the first section is, essentially, late Romantic, and the piano writing is filled with virtuosic flourishes. Yet it’s not mere flashy display; this section was striking for its thematic development, logical structure and originality. The slower second section features a spiritual-inspired theme, and includes gorgeous dialogues between piano and oboe and between piano and flute. The lively and energetic concluding section is based on the juba, a pre-Civil War plantation dance. All of this was explained in pre- and post-performance talks by soloist Michelle Cann (a Curtis Institute faculty member, making her Philadelphia Orchestra debut). Ms. Cann more than met the technical challenges of this piece and delivered a strong, committed performance, with equally committed accompaniment by the orchestra, under the baton of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The concert began with an early Rossini overture, La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder). Although performed less often than other Rossini overtures, the Orchestra’s new principal oboe, Phillippe Tondre, explained in a brief introduction that the piece is often utilized to audition oboists seeking an orchestral position. Hearing the rapid-fire passages for the oboe, one can easily understand this use of the piece. However, given Rossini’s predilection for fast passage work, this piece is no less of a workout for the other orchestral players. It may not have the catchy themes of some of the later overtures, but still, on first hearing by this listener, it’s an appealing work.

The concluding work on this program, Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, was entitled “Tragic” by the composer himself. This title seems misplaced. While the opening movement is in a minor key, the mood is far from melancholy. Overall, this work by the 19-year-old Schubert is uplifting, and the fourth movement is particularly buoyant and engaging.

In this pandemic era, Yannick continues to lead the orchestra in outstanding performances. All that was missing was an ovation by the audience. However, I’m sure that many of us in the virtual audience found ourselves shouting “Bravo” and applauding our computer screens.

Joined: Oct 2012
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Great review Hank. Well said. I, as well, have been subscribing to the Digital Stage and I am so grateful to watch and hear my Philadelphia Orchestra.


Barbara
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I didn’t see this performance, but I do like her concerto. It’s a fantastic work that should definitely be played more!

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Thank you for this review. I got to know Price and this concerto through a series of programs presented by Donald Mcleod in BBC's "Composer of the Week" last year. A truly wonderful composer with a large output of symphonies, concerti, chamber music, organ and piano music, songs, choral works and more. It's so interesting to learn about her life: she was born to an elite family, which gave her access to opportunities that were out of reach of many other African Americans at the time. She studied at the New England Conservatory, but her somewhat lighter skin tone made her pass as a latina, and her mother insisted that she conceal her race- in her graduation recital, the program lists her as hailing from “Pueblo, Mexico.” But as a mature and accomplished composer she still struggled to get her works to be performed. When they were, it was almost exclusively by African American musicians or women's orchestras. After having experienced so many silences, rejection and disappointments, she decided to opt for directness and wrote to the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

"My Dear Dr. Koussevitzky,

To begin with I have two handicaps— those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought content, until you shall have examined some of my work? As to the handicap of race, may I relieve you by saying that I neither expect nor ask any concession on that score. I should like to be judged on merit alone."

Koussevitzky never wrote back.

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Thank you for this review--it was a great performance, and a great piece. I find it amazing and impressive how much the Philadelphia Orchestra has been able to accomplish on its "digital stage." I was reluctant to listen to these performances at first, because I thought they would be a poor substitute for in-person concerts. But I was wrong and I would recommend them to anyone--really stunning. (It helps to send the sound through good speakers.)


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