Metropolitan Youth Symphony: rediscovery and discovery

Classical music programs largely consist of endlessly recycled old classics by composers who are (a) European, (b) male, and (c) white. Florence Price is (e) none of the above. The 20th century African American composer does, however, abide by that other common requirement for appearing on classical programs — she’s (d) — dead. 

But today, Price’s music is, against all odds, coming back to life, including Tuesday when Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony performs one of her symphonies. 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 just composed by a young woman from the Pacific Northwest.

Metropolitan Youth Symphony plays music of Florence Price, Katie Palka and more Tuesday. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Born in Arkansas in 1887, Price studied music at the prestigious New England Conservatory and went on to write hundreds of compositions. Premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, her Symphony No. 1 in E minor was the first symphony by an African-American woman ever to be performed by a major American orchestra. (Read Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch story about Price and other neglected African American composers.)

But 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. When one of her former homes was remodeled in 2009, the attic yielded dozens of unpublished scores, and ignited an ongoing rediscovery of her music.  

Last spring, MYS violinist and budding Portland composer Katie Palka read an article about some of Price’s newly released music, and began exploring her work. (Read my ArtsWatch story about Palka and her previous composition for MYS, and our roundtable discussion with other rising young Portland composers including Palka.) “Her [first] symphony captivates me in a similar way as other great symphonies have,” Palka says. “I think of music like storytelling, and the musical story of the piece is similar to any story like fantasy or sci fi world building: setting, emotional feel, setting up the distinctive musical world she was creating.” Palka brought Price’s symphony to MYS artistic director Raul Gomez, who encourages MYS students to suggest pieces for him to consider for the orchestra.

American composer Florence Price in 1953. Photo: The New York Times courtesy of University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections.

“It was this revelation,” Gomez remembers. “Price’s symphony sounds truly American. 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, [but] she got that in a personal way. It was very shocking to me that her symphony is, as far as [her publisher] can tell is a US West Coast premiere.” 

The centerpiece of MYS’s May 21 concert, Price’s Symphony #1 fit Gomez’s programming for MYS: “to expose our students to the old well established masterworks of the symphonic catalog, but also to teach them that new music and music by minorities or other neglected composers are as valid as any pieces by the old masters,” he says. “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 Price would be an ideal unfamiliar American voice for the orchestra to showcase on its upcoming European tour. 

After Gomez showed the MYS players a documentary film about Price and the challenges she and other composers of color faced, “the orchestra managers said they’d never seen a group of teenagers so quiet and attentive and focused, ever,” Gomez says. “So from the beginning of this process, we contextualized the work and students have been really receptive to it.”

Portland composer Katie Palka.

Especially Palka, who’s won national acclaim and last year wrote an original symphonic work for MYS. She was also one of three composers chosen to write original works this year as part of MYS’s new Authentic Voices Project, which helps promising young Northwest composers create and develop music for the orchestra. For this season’s third and final AVP student commission, Gomez thought Palka should write a tribute to Price for MYS to perform alongside Price’s symphony. “And because it was Katie who brought Florence Price into my universe,” Gomez says, “I thought it would be cool if her piece was a letter to Florence Price herself.”

Revival and Reinvigoration

Palka’s Letter to Florence Price, which MYS will premiere, sonically expresses what a living 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. ”One of the great things about music is you can express emotion without having to translate feelings into words,” Palka explains. “You’re aware of the progress that still needs to be made. But one of the greatest sources of hope is in the potential for change and becoming more inclusive. You’re very aware of both things at once.” 

Her Letter conveys those complex feelings using ambiguous chords that blur the distinction between major and minor keys. “That helped me capture that sense of nuanced array of emotions,” Palka explains.

Raúl Gómez leads Metropolitan Youth Symphony Tuesday.

Gomez says he and MYS musicians have embraced Palka’s new piece. “As young as she is in years, she’s a very mature composer and has a personal, unique voice,” Gomez says. “She has this gift for creating textures and manipulates them in the orchestra in an effective way. On top of those textures, she’s giving different lines and snippets to different instruments. There’s initial thoughts, words, sentences that come to mind, as if you’re writing a letter to somebody. As those textures grow and become more developed, you get to several different climactic moments in the piece that reflect Katie’s thoughts and emotions about what it means to do what she’s doing.” 

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,” and 2019 MYS Concerto Competition winner Ethan Tseng performing the first movement from Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

Ethan Tseng plays Kabalevsky with MYS.

As encores, MYS will play the West Coast premieres of two short works inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, both written by 11-year-old female African-American composers 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” which evokes the feeling of stepping out of the subway onto the streets of Harlem for the first time, with musical textures inspired by Aaron Douglas paintings. Both received praise from the New York Times at their premiere last summer.

Young composers like those on this MYS program draw inspiration from hearing great music by composers like Price who are neglected in today’s music education. “There may be starting to be greater diversity of composers today, but historically there were none you could look back to for inspiration,” says Palka, who heads off to the University of Southern California to study music next year. “Music history education doesn’t really talk about figures like Florence Price. Seeing these role models is very important to inspire the next generation of kids to compose. It’s hard to realize if you don’t see someone like yourself as a composer. If you see greater diversity of composers (in orchestras programming), it gives you the hope that you can achieve what you want to achieve.”

Metropolitan Youth Symphony performs “America’s Florence” at 7:30 pm Tuesday, May 21, at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Pre-concert conversation at 6:30 pm. Tickets online or 503.239.4566.

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