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One pianist shares her thoughts about inclusion in classical music

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Steven Mareazi Willis
Michelle Cann

Michelle Cann is an award-winning pianist. She’s performed as a soloist with numerous ensembles, including orchestras in Cleveland and Philadelphia. And she’s on the faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music.

In the past few years, Cann has been including the little-known music of Florence Price on many of her programs. Price, in 1933, became the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major U.S. orchestra. Cann was twice scheduled to perform in Connecticut with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, but those events were canceled due to the pandemic.

As part of our series “Classical Music: Moving Toward Inclusion,” Michelle Cann spoke with Connecticut Public Radio’s Lori Mack. Here are highlights from their conversation.

On racial inequity in classical music

Cann: As a Black woman myself, and I think about young Black children, I totally get the idea of limitation as opposed to inclusiveness if you look out in front of you and you don’t see anyone that looks like you involved. And [that’s] all the way down the board, as a conductor, as an instrumentalist, as a composer.

On more inclusivity in classical music

Cann: I think that one of the most important ways that I’ve been able to bring others into classical music is by showing that I care about them. It’s taking that extra step to go and meet people in communities around you; showing them what you love, being passionate about what you do. Because I don’t think there’s anything more convincing than a kind of one-on-one or personal experience that inspires you. I think that that connection is what really matters.

On discovering the music of Florence Price

Cann: In 2016 I was asked to perform her Piano Concerto in One Movement. This was a composer I had never heard of. My initial reaction was, if she’s so great why have I never heard of her? I thought the music would be a little subpar. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I opened up the score and I was reading through it for the very first time, I was absolutely floored …

But in some ways I was a little nervous about how the audience would receive it. I wanted everyone to have the same excitement that I had when I first read it through. So, I remember when the piece ended with the orchestra. It stopped and again no one knows this piece, so there’s that moment of, is the piece over? So there was this moment where you didn’t hear anything, then it was the loudest applause I think I have ever experienced up to that point, quite literally! And there was a standing ovation immediately.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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