The Century of Progress International Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, took place from 1933 to 1934 and changed the life of composer Florence Price. It was for this international event that her first symphony was selected as one of the works for a celebratory Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert conducted by Frederick Stock in June of 1933.
This event was a milestone: it was the first large-scale work by a Black woman performed by a major American orchestra.
In early May, some 89 years later, CSO music director Riccardo Muti returned to the music of Florence Price. Muti had planned the CSO’s first performances of her Symphony No. 3 for the spring of 2020, but those concerts were canceled due to the pandemic.
Florence Price was not only an American composer, she was a Chicago composer. She moved to Chicago from Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1920s and lived just north of Hyde Park in Bronzeville, where she sometimes worked as an organist when she wasn’t composing. She was the friend and teacher of Margaret Bonds.
These performances of her Symphony No. 3 were treated as a kind of celebration. Every concert was preceded by a free panel discussion of Florence Price (as well as her colleague and friend William Grant Still), followed by brief chamber recitals in both the Grainger Ballroom and the Rotunda at Symphony Center. This pre-concert attention to Price and her work was informative as well as entertaining and set the stage for a highly anticipated concert. Kudos to Symphony Center staff and volunteers who made this multi-event evening such a smooth and rewarding experience.
With all that build-up, Muti and the CSO did not disappoint. The opening movement, marked Andante—Allegro, is bursting with musical ideas, hopping joyfully from one thought to another. Muti deftly navigated the unexpected and complex shifts of mood and expression with flair, and teased out the blues-inspired elements. The second movement features a marvelous bassoon solo before it reaches dramatic conclusion.
The third movement is marked “Juba” for the African-American style of dance of that name. The music is arresting, with snazzy syncopation and almost endless energy. Muti and his orchestra filled the music with spunk and defiant jubilation. Price made extensive use of percussion (there were six percussionists plus a timpanist) and one of many highlights is the xylophone solo, which was rendered with striking power by Cynthia Yeh. The final movement’s stirring melodies were played with grand excitement. The audience loved it at the Saturday night performance, giving Muti and the CSO a standing ovation.
Before the Price symphony, which was the concluding work on the program, was a short work by Black composer William Grant Still. Price and Still grew up in the same Little Rock neighborhood and attended the same church. They eventually became life-long friends.
Still was a trailblazer for Black composers, having achieved a wide number of firsts. He was the first person of color to: have a large work performed by a major American orchestra, to conduct a major American orchestra, to conduct a symphony orchestra in the Deep South, to have an opera performed by a major American company, to have an opera televised, and to conduct on national radio.
The work selected for this concert was Still’s “Mother and Child” in a string orchestra version of what was originally composed for violin and piano. Muti presided over a polished performance, with a shiny, silky sound. The blossoming phrases brought out the tenderness of the music. There were serene moments that dissolved into wistfulness. This short work was both moving and beautiful.
I believe that Muti wanted to honor these two featured composers and to do so he paired them with two works by Beethoven, one of the most talented and most well-known of classical composers. In essence, he signaled to the audience that Price and Still belong among the greats.
The concert opened with the Egmont Overture, with Muti drawing out both the tense urgency and the heroic triumph.
This was followed by a splendid performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. The pensive opening moments smoldered before exploding into action. Muti offered a graciously subdued second movement, which featured deliciously delicate pizzicato and expressive phrasing. The Scherzo was buzzing with percussive power while the concluding movement was imbued with crisp, brisk playing that served Beethoven well.
It was a splendid performance and attendance was excellent. As you made your way to the exit you could hear nothing but praise for the music, for the performance, and for the evening. It was nothing short of a great success. Just what one would wish for Florence Price.