Hello there!

I hope you are enjoying the summer months despite this crazy pandemic and, especially, that you and your loved ones are healthy and in good spirits!

I thought I’d share some music with you that I’ve been exploring recently. I am always on the lookout for wonderful composers whose works aren’t commonly featured in concert halls. It’s like a treasure hunt and nothing excites me more than finding that hidden gem! I’ve recently been listening to works by Black American composers who were contemporaries of George Gershwin.

You may recall that in our 2021-22 season we have programmed a symphony by Florence Price. She was the first African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra.  Her name resurfaced in the news a few years ago when a couple living in St. Anne, Illinois acquired an abandoned house in order to renovate it. It was definitely in bad shape with a fallen tree on its roof and shattered windows. In the process of clearing out the attic, they discovered undamaged boxes of handwritten music with Florence Price’s signature on each one — works previously considered to have been permanently lost. The new homeowners had no idea that the house they’d purchased had once been Price’s summer home! There’s a great article on the discovery in the February 5, 2018 issue of The New Yorker.

Here is one of the lost masterworks to be rediscovered:

Florence Price: Violin Concerto No. 2 (1952)
Er-Gene Kahng, violin with the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra
Steve Byess, conducting

So you may be wondering, “If Florence was the first African-American woman to have a symphony premiered, who was the guy that beat her to the title of first-ever African-American symphonist?” It was her contemporary, William Grant Still who had his Afro-American Symphony premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1933, just two years prior to Florence’s first symphony’s premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The first movement of Still’s symphony is called “Longings” and it begins with a lone English horn solo that will break your heart even before it launches into a blues-inspired intro. It’s magnificent! I hope you will be swept away and enjoy the entire symphony, but if you’d prefer to skip around after hearing the opening, be sure to check out 12:45. That’s the beginning of movement 3 called “Humor” and it features a banjo, obviously an unusual instrument in a symphonic setting.

William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony (1931)
Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi conducting

I have been dancing around my house to the music of another incredible African-American composer writing music in the first half of the 20th century–the great Duke Ellington. Of course we know him as an iconic jazz composer and performer, but he was fascinated by the music of symphonic composers such as Debussy and Tchaikovsky, and he pioneered the jazz orchestra genre, a fusion borrowing structural elements from both idioms. Towards the end of his life he wrote film scores, ballets, several suites and even choral works. He collaborated with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic several times and conducted the orchestra on at least one occasion (as a conductor I can officially say that this is wicked impressive).

Here are a couple of selections of Ellington’s ballet music. The first is a movement from The River unfinished at the time of his death. It was premiered at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater in 1965.

The River Suite–Mvt III. Giggling Rapids–arranged by Ron Collier)
Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi, conducting

And finally, take a listen to Ellington’s absolutely brilliant take on Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker. I hope this leaves you tapping your foot and with a smile on your face! I absolutely cannot wait to see that smile in person when we are able to do concerts again. Until then, take care and keep listening to whatever brings you joy!

Nutcracker Suite (after Tchaikovsky) composed by Duke Ellington and his long time collaborator, Billy Strayhorn  (1960)
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra


Take a look at our other musical moments with Laura HERE


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