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:”
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. One of the most instructive introductions to his music is a recent disc by The Nash Ensemble (Hyperion 67590), including his Piano Quintet in G minor, Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor and Ballade.
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.