Neglected and well worth exploring

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Peter Dobrin, fresh from a first hearing of the original scoring of Florence Beatrice Price’s Piano Concerto in D minor, wonders how much more worthwhile music by black, female and other long-marginalized composers might be languishing “in an attic or a music library or maybe hiding in plain sight:”

http://www.inquirer.com/news/black-composers-classical-music-representation-repertoire-20210221.html

There is indeed a great deal to (re)discover, not just during Black History Month and not just in a “bubble” of recently kindled interest, as Dobrin describes the past few years’ revival of Price’s music, and a lot of it is not exactly hiding, as it has been available for some years on recordings.

If I were programming a neglected work by Price, it would be her Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, a no less attractive and musically more substantial work than her Piano Concerto. You can hear it on a recording by violinist Er-Gene Khang, with Ryan Cockerham conducting the Janáček Philharmonic, on a disc (Albany 1706) that also includes Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Cockerham’s “Before, It Was Golden.”

William Grant Still, long known as the dean of African-American composers, is most commonly represented on concert programs by his First (“Afro-American”) Symphony, a finely crafted piece that ranks among the best of classical Americana – but not, to my ears, his best symphony. That would be his Second (“Song of a New Race”), which is stylistically more present-tense (the present in question being the mid-20th century) and more venturesome in orchestration. It can be heard, along with William Levi Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” and Duke Ellington’s orchestral tone poem “Harlem,” on a disc (Chandos 9226) by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi conducting. (If forced to recommend just one recording of orchestral music by black composers, I would choose this one.)

James P. Johnson, the pioneer of the post-ragtime “stride” piano style that greatly influenced George Gershwin, Fats Waller and others in the 1920s and ’30s, is best-known as the composer of “Charleston,” the greatest dance hit of the ’20s. Johnson also wrote a number of orchestral pieces, notably the Concerto “Jazz-a-Mine,” a musical “answer” to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” That concerto, along with Johnson’s “Harlem Symphony,” his symphonic poem “Drums” and other works, can be heard on a disc (MusicMasters/Musical Heitage Society 5172763) by pianist Leslie Stifelman and the Concordia Orchestra, Marin Alsop conducting.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who will play the Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2, of Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the Guadeloupe-born French contemporary of Mozart, in Richmond Symphony concerts in April, recorded that work, as well as concertos by the Afro-Caribbean-French Chevalier J.J.O. de Meude-Monpas and the Afro-Cuban-French Joseph White and the Romance in G major of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, with Daniel Hege conducting the Encore Chamber Orchestra (Çedille 90000 035).

Coleridge-Taylor is one of the most distinctive composers of African descent. Born in London to a father from Sierra Leone and an English mother and schooled in Britain, Coleridge-Taylor was a contemporary of Edward Elgar and wrote in a similarly high-romantic idiom, but with some echoes of his ethnic roots. Instructive introductions to his music are his Piano Quintet in G minor and Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor, available on two recent recordings: a disc by Britain’s Nash Ensemble (Hyperion 67590), which also includes his Ballade, and a disc by the Catalyst Quartet (Azica 71336) with the Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear and Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, in the quintets, plus the composer’s “Five Fantasy Pieces” for quartet.

All of these recordings are available as digital downloads as well as discs; and you can find much of this music, in these or other recordings or from live performances, on YouTube.

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