Students Who Wrote Book About Pioneering Black Composer Get ‘Fantastic Day’ With Philadelphia Orchestra


In New York, a group is actively caring for the legacy of Florence Price, writing and promoting a children’s book about the long-neglected black composer. Around the same time, a certain famed Philadelphia musical ensemble became Price’s most visible orchestral champion.

The two forces met Thursday at the Kimmel Center for a Florence Price synergy day, and it was hard to escape the feeling that her pioneering legacy is secure with such fiery and intelligent defenders.

And young. The authors of Who is Florence Price? are middle schoolers, students of the Special Music School at the Kaufman Music Center, near Lincoln Center in New York.

They met for the first time the musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, not during a scholarly forum, but when they were all invited to a recent episode of The Kelly Clarkson Show. Students performed works by Price, spoke about how his career had been plagued by prejudice, and noted how the world of top orchestras, long dominated by white men, is now opening up to others.

“Yeah,” Clarkson said 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 met in Philadelphia on Thursday. During the visit, they attended a rehearsal of Price’s music, spoke with the conductor and other members of the orchestra’s artistic staff about musicological issues, and presented a live version of book them with performances of his work in the Kimmel Hall.

The day ended with the 15 students attending the first subscription concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the alternately exuberant and tender room of the Verizon Hall of Price. Symphony No. 1.

“It was a fantastic day for them,” said Kate Sheeran, executive director of the Kaufman Music Center. “We’ve never seen an orchestra do anything like this. Usually when children are invited to something like this they are put on the balcony and shut up.

“Honestly, it was so amazing,” said 14-year-old violist Hazel Peebles. “I have never attended a rehearsal like this. It was so exciting to see it all fall into place.

Price, who died in 1953, struggled throughout her life to gain attention for her scores in the predominantly white world of American orchestras.

As the story is told in Who is Florence Price??:

She began to think that she might never hear her music played. Due to racist views, no orchestra wanted to play his symphony.

A few eventually did. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed it Symphony No. 1 in 1933, and Price is now recognized as the first black woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra.

But after his death, his works disappeared from concert halls. In 2009, a couple who bought an old house near Chicago discovered his manuscripts in the attic, and in recent years his works have been published, performed and recorded continuously.

Perhaps the most fervent among American ensembles, the Philadelphia Orchestra has performed and recorded his work with Nézet-Séguin. Group registration Symphony No. 1 and 3 on the Deutsche Grammophon label was nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award in the “Best Orchestral Performance” category. (Winners will be announced in April.)

“I vaguely heard that name as part of music history,” Nézet-Séguin said of a meeting seven or eight years ago with Jeremy Rothman in which the artistic vice president of the orchestra had mentioned Price. “Really, honestly, I never paid too much attention to it, like a lot of my colleagues.”

So he took a look at the score of the first symphony, “and I opened it and was immediately blown away.”

Now Nézet-Séguin thinks Price is Symphony No. 1 should be integrated into the standard repertoire of the orchestra.

“It should become, like ‘Oh, we’re playing the Florence Price [Symphony No.] 1like Dvorak’s 9th or Brahms 1.”

The conductor says Price’s music is “full, rich and passionate. It’s really like listening to Brahms, but injecting the real American flavor with the percussion processing, the spiritual music processing. Even the brass chorale at the start of the second movement – ​​we changed the way we breathed it to be more in line with what a congregation does in church.

“You can definitely hear the spiritual music influence, but also a classical element, and I think it’s a nice mix,” said Sophia Shao, 14, a pianist and eighth-grade student at the special school. of music.

Shao was in sixth grade when Florence Price’s book began as a school project. English teacher Shannon Potts brought Price to the students’ attention, and “they wanted more kids to know about her,” Sheeran said. It became a collective effort with approximately 45 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students doing the historical research, writing, and illustrating what became a 42-page hardcover for students in third to fifth year. Nézet-Séguin describes the book as “charming”.

“I believe it was mid-February 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 school and sold copies to friends and family. But I was just floored by it. It was told in such an intelligent way and the illustrations were so vibrant and beautiful. I ordered another set so I could send it to everyone.

The book caught 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 pupils have produced a book on the friendship between Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes, and are preparing another on the composer Julius Eastman.

If young authors are interested in people whose stories have not been told, “they’re not going to run out of stories anytime soon,” Sheeran says.

The value of those efforts, she says, pays dividends.

“What I’ve seen with this whole project is that it shows kids how much of a say they have in the ability to shape the stories being told, to shape the way the story of music is presented, that we don’t have to accept just one version of it.

Nézet-Séguin puts it this way:

“The key here is to really change the narrative in our musical world. The most powerful way is right now when you’re young, in school, when you’re a music student. That’s why I said I wish I had this book when I was a kid. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and, yes, Price.

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