Philadelphia Orchestra and musical schoolchildren join forces to celebrate pioneering Black composer
Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin was on hand to chat with the New York students, who have written a book about composer Florence Price.
In New York, one group has been busily tending the legacy of Florence Price, writing and promoting a children’s book on the long-neglected Black composer. At about the same time, a certain famous musical ensemble in Philadelphia has become Price’s most visible orchestral champion.
The two forces met Thursday at the Kimmel Center for a day of Florence Price synergy, and it was hard to escape the feeling that her pioneering legacy is ensured with advocates this ardent and smart.
And young. The authors of Who Is Florence Price? are middle-schoolers, students from the Special Music School at the Kaufman Music Center, near New York’s Lincoln Center.
They first crossed paths with Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin not at some scholarly forum, but when they were all guests on a recent episode of The Kelly Clarkson Show. Students performed works by Price, talked about how her career was undermined by prejudice, and noted how the world of top orchestras, long dominated by white men, is now opening to others.
“Yeah,” said Clarkson on the show, which aired Tuesday. “It took a minute, but we got there.”
It was also on the show that Nézet-Séguin publicly invited the students to Philadelphia, which is how they found themselves in Philadelphia on Thursday. During the visit, they sat in on a rehearsal of Price’s music, chatted with the conductor and other orchestra artistic staff about matters musicological, and put on a live version of their book complete with performances of her work in the Kimmel lobby.
The day ended with the 15 students attending the Philadelphia Orchestra’s subscription-concert debut in Verizon Hall of Price’s alternately exuberant and tender Symphony No. 1.
“It was a fantasy day for them,” said Kate Sheeran, executive director of the Kaufman Music Center. “We’ve never seen any orchestra do anything like this. Usually when kids are invited to something like this they are put in the balcony and shushed.”
“Honestly, that was just so amazing,” said 14-year-old violist Hazel Peebles. “I’ve never sat in on a rehearsal like that. It was so thrilling to watch everything come together.”
Price, who died in 1953, struggled during her lifetime to get attention for her scores from the overwhelmingly white world of American orchestras.
As the story is recalled in Who Is Florence Price?:
She began to think she might never hear her music performed. Because of racist views not one orchestra was willing to play her symphony.
A few eventually did. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony No. 1 in 1933, and Price today is acknowledged as the first Black woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra.
But after her death, her works disappeared from concert halls. In 2009, a couple who bought an old house near Chicago discovered her manuscripts in the attic, and in the last few years, her works have been published, performed, and recorded in a steady stream.
Most fervently among American ensembles, perhaps, the Philadelphia Orchestra has been performing and recording her work with Nézet-Séguin. The group’s recording of the Symphony No. 1 and 3 on the Deutsche Grammophon label has been nominated for a 2022 Grammy award in the “best orchestral performance” category. (Winners are to be announced in April.)
“I vaguely heard that name as part of music history,” said Nézet-Séguin about a meeting seven or eight years ago with Jeremy Rothman at which the orchestra’s artistic vice president had mentioned Price. “Really, honestly, I never paid too much attention to it, like many of my colleagues.”
So he took a look at the score to the first symphony, “and I opened it and immediately I was blown away.”
Now, Nézet-Séguin thinks that Price’s Symphony No. 1 should be folded in as part of the orchestra’s standard repertoire.
“It should become, like ‘Oh, we’re playing the Florence Price [Symphony No.] 1, like Dvorak’s 9th or Brahms 1.”
The conductor says Price’s music is “full, rich, and passionate. It really is like listening to some Brahms, but injecting true American flavor with the treatment of the percussion, the treatment of the spiritual music. Even the brass chorale at the beginning of the second movement — we changed our way of breathing it so it would match more of what a congregation does at church.”
“You can definitely hear the influence of spiritual music, but also a classical element, and I think it’s a beautiful mix,” said Sophia Shao, 14, a pianist and Special Music School eighth-grade student.
Shao was a sixth grader when the Florence Price book began as a school project. English teacher Shannon Potts brought Price to the attention of the students, and “they wanted more kids to know about her,” said Sheeran. It became a collective effort with about 45 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders taking on the historical research, writing, and illustrating of what became a 42-page hardcover aimed at third to fifth graders. Nézet-Séguin calls the book “charming.”
“I believe it was mid-February of 2020 when a group of middle-school students knocked on my office door,” Sheeran said. “They self-published it as a thing to have around the school and were selling copies to friends and family. But I was just floored by it. It was told in such a smart way and the illustrations were so vibrant and beautiful. I ordered another run so I could send it to everyone.”
The book came to the attention of G. Schirmer, publisher of Price’s music, and a few months later they made the decision to publish it — their first children’s imprint.
Next, the school’s students produced a book about the friendship between Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes, and have another on the way about composer Julius Eastman.
If the young authors are interested in people whose stories have not been told, “they are not going to run out of stories anytime soon,” Sheeran says.
The value of such endeavors, she says, pays dividends.
“What I’ve seen with this whole project is that it shows kids how much of a voice they have in being able to shape what stories get told, to shape how music history is presented, that we don’t have to accept just one version of it.”
Nézet-Séguin puts it like this:
“The key here is to really change the narrative in our music world. The most powerful way is immediately when you are a young person, in school, when you’re a music student. That’s why I said I wish I would have had this book when I was a kid. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and, yes, Price.”