BSO spotlights neglected African-American composer Florence Price

Florence Price
Florence Price (courtesy of University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections)

Friday night’s Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert proved rewarding in many ways, not the least that it opened with a piece by Florence Price, a trailblazer as an African-American woman in the first half of the 20th century.

That this Arkansas-born composer — whose output includes symphonies, concertos and much more — gets so little attention says a lot about what needs fixing in the classical music world.


Price, who died in 1953, has received a flurry of interest lately, especially in the New York press, along with a few new recordings. Perhaps this will help spur more lasting attention.

She is hardly alone in being neglected, of course. Female composers still account for an absurdly small portion of music programmed by orchestras; African-American composers of either gender remain on the far fringes of the repertoire.


So all the more reason to welcome this weekend’s BSO program, which will be repeated Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

That said, I wish the choice had been a composition that Price conceived for orchestra, rather than one written for piano and subsequently arranged by someone else.

Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony in Bartok's evergreen Concerto for Orchestra and, with soloist Gabriela Montero, another perennial favorite,Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

But considering that the vivid orchestration of Price’s “Dances in the Canebrakes” was done by another highly gifted — and under-appreciated — African-American composer, William Grant Still, there’s little reason to complain.

BSO associate conductor Nicholas Hersh shaped Price’s effortlessly melodious, rhythmically buoyant dances with a keen ear for contour, and he drew warm playing from the ensemble. (I hope that more works by Price — and other American composers who have been ignored — will be programmed soon. This should not be a once-in-a-blue-moon effort.)

Hersh was a major asset for the concert’s remainder as well, maintaining a level of poise and naturalness of movement that revealed how impressively he has grown as a conductor since he joined the orchestra in 2014.

He provided solid support for the evening’s soloist, Joyce Yang, in a kinetic, absorbing performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

Yang, the silver medalist at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, demonstrated abundant technical panache throughout. Even more satisfying was her variety of tone, which brought out many a subtlety in the intensely lyrical episodes of this prismatic score. The BSO made its mark, too, with playing rich in color and spice.

The audience’s enthusiastic reception yielded an encore from Yang — a suave account of the brilliant etude that the late, great pianist Earl Wild fashioned out of Gershwin’s classic song “The Man I Love.”

In Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which closed the evening, a few little details could have been smoother. But Hersh’s affinity for the score’s atmosphere and tension, matched with the BSO’s dynamic response, yielded an eventful experience.

Mighty chords from the brass had particular impact. The strings sounded dark and lush. Woodwinds chirped colorfully. The various solo efforts were delivered with style.

Before launching the Mussorgsky work, Hersh acknowledged the horrific mass shooting at a Florida high school on Wednesday. He led the orchestra in the soulful “Nimrod” passage from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” dedicated to the memory of the 17 victims.

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