classical-music review

Reclaiming a Depression-Era Composer Who Sought Deep Joy

Angel Blue with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

For as long as I can remember, American orchestras have been scrabbling around, searching for the key to relevance. They’ve tried projections, apps, pop-star collaborations, kids’ concerts, movie play-alongs, youth-oriented ad campaigns, singles’ nights, and dutiful performances of new music they didn’t believe in. So many of these efforts come off as lethally diffident and anxious to please. But the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is sort of semi-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this season, seems to have shaken off that legacy of awkwardness, or at least it did Tuesday, sounding fresh, energized, and current like a group that had something urgent and positive to say about America in 2022.

It’s standard practice in symphony concerts to commission short works and then treat them like shards of broken glass: dispose of them quickly or wrap them in Beethoven Bubble Wrap so nobody will get hurt. Here, the orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézét-Séguin, took the opposite approach. The one vaguely canonical work, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, was sandwiched between new American pieces, a suite from Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice (the whole opera recently had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera) and Valerie Coleman’s orchestral song “This Is Not a Small Voice.” That first half built up to a feat of urgent historical correction, a performance of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1. (The Philadelphians recently recorded that work along with Price’s Second Symphony.)

“This is not a small voice,” the soprano Angel Blue sings at the beginning of Coleman’s song, and that guarantees that by the end, we’ll get to hear her loud and high like a seraph’s shout. Coleman set Sonia Sanchez’s raging 1995 poem (“This is the voice of LaTanya. / Kadesha. Shaniqua …”) to music, but the music transfigures the anger into celebration. Coleman’s score has a velvety iridescence that suits Blue’s voice, which in turn melds with the Philadelphians’ rich orchestral palette.

Price’s First is sometimes discussed as a knockoff of Dvorak’s New World Symphony from 1893. The implication is that, writing her first symphony in 1933 in her mid-40s, she was somehow unaware of four decades’ worth of tidal shifts in music. To make that comparison is to do Price a disservice: Of course she didn’t do Dvořák as well as Dvořák did, if that was her goal. But I don’t believe it was. Could she possibly have been so besotted with a Bohemian carpetbagger’s idea of “great and noble” (his words) Black music that she could think of nothing better than to imitate it? She had her own ideas of how to fuse the different traditions she bestrode.

She was hardly out of step. Like other symphonists of her generation (Howard Hanson, say), she labored to translate a European art form into an American language. Like Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Virgil Thomson, and other composers attuned to Black folk traditions, she aspired to a style that was simultaneously elevated and authentic. These were shared ambitions for a collective project that remains incomplete; no one composer won the race to figure it out.

Hearing Price’s symphony played with such fluidity and precision, I was struck by its optimism and sense of common purpose, two qualities that seem out of reach today. All those broad-shouldered themes, the aw-shucks manner and nice-folks dance steps, the festive energy tempered by solemn brass choirs, the campfire roughness filtered through luscious vibrato strings — these are not instances of someone snuffling through a picturesque past but the sounds of an artist mining the Zeitgeist. Price wrote her first symphony in 1933, when America was a stew of economic misery, raging epidemics, racist violence, political ferocity, and regional divisions. Yet the score is larded with hard-won joy. If her music reminds you a bit of Aaron Copland’s, it’s because both composers were getting through their difficult present by projecting an imagined past onto a hopeful future. Copland was Jewish, gay, and from Brooklyn in an era when none of those were social assets. Price was female, Black, and Arkansas-born, three strikes that effectively excluded her from the story of American music. Yet in the middle of the Depression, both found ways to encode in music a belief in American perfectibility — the conviction that the country was more than the sum of its faults. If that seems retrograde or naïve today, well, the Philadelphia Orchestra suggested that attitude couldn’t be more timely. The program twinned nostalgia and hope, offering them as a package available to all political persuasions, two powerfully expressive parts of a long American tradition.

Rediscovering a Depression-Era Composer Who Sought Deep Joy