top of page

The Oregonian: Long-ignored American composer’s music is making a comeback and inspiring new voices,


By Brett Campbell | For The Oregonian/OregonLive (original here)

(fetched for this blog on 5.4.19 at 6:03pm)

Classical music programs largely consist of recycled works by composers who are European, male and white. Florence Price is none of the above. She does, however, abide by that other common requirement for appearing on classical programs — she’s dead.

But today, Price’s music is coming back to life, with presentations including a May 21 performance of one of her symphonies by Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony. What’s more, Price’s resurrection is inspiring today’s young composers to create new music, and the concert features some of that, too — including a world premiere of a work by a young woman from Beaverton.

Price, born in Arkansas in 1887, studied music at the prestigious New England Conservatory and went on to write hundreds of compositions. Her Symphony No. 1 in E minor, premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was the first symphony by an African-American woman to be performed by a major American orchestra.

Price’s music, like that of so many composers of color in her time, was ignored by most orchestras and seldom played after her death in 1953. But when one of her former homes was remodeled in 2009, the attic yielded dozens of unpublished scores.

Last spring, Katie Palka, a Metropolitan Youth Symphony violinist and budding composer, read an article about some of Price’s newly released music and started exploring her other works, including a recording of that first symphony. It so captivated Palka that she brought it to the youth symphony’s artistic director, Raul Gomez, who encourages students to suggest pieces for the orchestra.

“It was this revelation,” Gomez said. “In it you can hear the strong presence of Afro-American rhythms and dances. You can hear influences of orchestral European music of the time, (such as) Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony.’ However, she got that in a personal way.”

Raul Gomez, music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. (Richard Kolbell)

He said it was shocking to him that the May 21 performance of the symphony is, as far as Price’s publisher can tell, a West Coast premiere.

“We’re doing (Price’s symphony) from the starting point that it’s great music, not because it was written by a minority. We’re going to celebrate it and perform it, and while doing that, we’re giving voice to composers from other backgrounds that haven’t had the same exposure, for many reasons, historical and otherwise,” as venerated white European masters.

Gomez also thought the symphony would be an ideal unfamiliar American work for the orchestra to showcase on its upcoming European tour.

The program also includes a new composition by Palka, one of three composers chosen to write original works this year as part of the youth symphony’s new Authentic Voices Project, which helps promising young Northwest composers create and develop music. For the season’s third and final youth commission, Gomez thought Palka should write a tribute to Price.

Palka said her “Letter to Florence Price” sonically expresses what a female composer in the 21st century would say to her 20th-century predecessor: gratitude for her example and for the progress made toward greater inclusivity since then, but also recognition of the need for more.

The concert also includes the great 20th-century African American composer William Grant Still’s arrangement of Price’s piano work “Dances in the Cane Break.” Also, Ethan Tseng, the winner of the youth symphony’s 2019 Concerto Competition, will perform the first movement from Dmitri Kabalevsky’s “Cello Concerto No. 1.”

As encores, the youth symphony will play the West Coast premieres of two short works inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, written by 11-year-old African-American girls who are participants in the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Initiative: Jordan Millar’s brassy, bluesy “Boogie Down Uptown” and Camryn Cowan’s “Harlem Shake,” evocative of emerging from the subway onto the neighborhood’s streets. Both received praise from The New York Times at their premiere last summer.

Young composers draw inspiration from hearing great music by composers like Price who are neglected in today’s music education, Palka said. “Seeing these role models is very important to inspire the next generation of kids to compose,” she said. “If you see greater diversity of composers (in orchestra programming), it gives you the hope that you can achieve what you want to achieve.”

Metropolitan Youth Symphony: “America’s Florence”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 21, pre-concert conversation, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway.

Tickets: $11-$40, or 503-239-4566.

bottom of page