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Hartford Symphony performs pioneering work by African American composer Florence Price

In 1932, Florence Price wrote the first symphony to be performed for a major orchestra. The Hartford Symphony Orchestra will perform Price's Symphony No. 1 in E minor Friday, February 10, 2023 - Sunday, February 12, 2023.
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In 1932, Florence Price wrote the first symphony to be performed by a major orchestra. The Hartford Symphony Orchestra will perform Price's Symphony No. 1 in E minor Friday, Feb. 10, to Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023.

In 1932, Florence Price, a Black composer, entered two of her works in the prestigious Rodman Wanamaker competition: Symphony No.1 in E minor and Piano Sonata. The sonata came in third place, while the symphony took the top award. Her success caught the attention of Frederick Stock, music director of the Chicago Symphony.

In 1933, the Chicago Symphony performed Price’s Symphony, making her the first female African American composer to have a work performed by a major symphony. This weekend, The Hartford Symphony Orchestra performs the work, along with music by Rachmaninoff and Jessie Montgomery.

If you haven’t heard the name of Florence Price, there are probably a few reasons for that. First and foremost, the native of Little Rock, Arkansas, was the product of segregated America. Despite graduating from the New England Conservatory in 1906, Price and other Black composers were simply not afforded the same chances as their white colleagues.

Price also had to deal with a musical world where the works of female composers were largely ignored by orchestras in favor of male, European composers from the 19th century.

“She wrote to [Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor] Serge Koussevitzky and said, ‘I have two handicaps, one is I am a woman and the other is I have some Negro blood in me - these are both negatives I understand.’ Koussevitzky didn’t even write back,” said Carolyn Kuan, music director of the Hartford Symphony. “You can’t help but wonder how many talented musicians in the world we’re missing because of predetermined judgment about who someone is.”

Another big reason for Price’s relative obscurity is the simple fact that there were not a lot of works by the composer in existence. But that all changed in 2009, when a cache of her manuscripts were found in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois. The house was once Price’s summer home. The manuscripts contained dozens of works, some thought lost for good. That discovery has led to a resurgence of interest in Price’s music.

“It’s astonishing to me how close we came to never discovering this music,” Kuan said. “If it had not been for the curiosity of the people who found the music, it would have been lost.”

Kaun said learning Florence Price’s Symphony No.1 has been a treat for her and the orchestra. She said the work is very much in a lush, romantic style, but Price manages to put her own spin on the work.

“For sure it sounds like something that is born out of spirituals, born out of her experience, born out of her history,” said Kuan. “There is just for me a clear sound of who she was, where she came from, her culture and history. It just sounds like Florence Price.”

The Hartford Symphony performs works by Price, Rachmaninoff and Jessie Montgomery this weekend at the Bushnell’s Belding Theater.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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