An errant tornado, or even a carelessly tossed cigarette butt, in the wrong place and the Seattle Symphony would be playing a very different program.
The musical work in question, rescued from a precarious existence with the 2009 rediscovery of its manuscript, is the Violin Concerto No. 2 by pathbreaking African American composer Florence Price (1887-1953), which the Seattle Symphony Orchestra will play Thursday (March 12) and Saturday (March 14) with soloist Elisa Barston and conductor Eun Sun Kim.
This manuscript was among a cache of books and papers found in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois, which had been Price’s summer home, then her daughter’s, before the latter’s death in 1975. The couple who had bought the house and found the papers contacted the University of Arkansas, in Price’s birth state; archivists there were floored to hear that the collection — which had inexplicably survived decades just sitting in an empty house — contained more than 200 musical works believed lost by Price scholars.
This concerto — one of several Price pieces recently recorded on CD and performed across the country — was brought to Barston’s attention by the SSO’s former new-music adviser, Elena Dubinets.
“I had no idea of its existence before she approached me,” Barston says. “There is something very refreshing about getting to know a piece of music that has not been explored by multitudes of performers; I feel that I can really make it my own.”
Yet this rescue isn’t even the most amazing aspect of Price’s story.
Growing up in Little Rock’s middle-class Black community (her father was a dentist, her mother a secretary and restaurant owner), Price learned music from her mother, graduated from high school at 14 and was able to attend the nonsegregated New England Conservatory. From there, she remained indomitable on a musical career path that veered between enlightened advocacy and overt prejudice; for instance, she was accepted as a composition student by George Chadwick, the Conservatory’s dean, but was later denied membership in the Arkansas Music Teachers Association. She taught for two years at the historically Black Clark College in Atlanta before returning to Little Rock, but intensifying racial violence spurred her and her husband to move to Chicago to stay.
There Price taught, composed prolifically, began to publish and befriended, among others in Chicago musical circles, pioneering African American alto Marian Anderson, who sang a song by Price at her historic Lincoln Memorial recital on Easter 1939.
Price got her music performed occasionally across the Midwest (and eventually as far away as Manchester, England), receiving a career boost in 1932 when she won a composition competition that made the first of her four symphonies the first work by a Black woman performed by a major orchestra, the Chicago Symphony (then comprising only white men) under Frederick Stock. But even then the piece was segregated — programmed not as part of the CSO’s regular concert series, but as part of a special event titled “The Negro in Music.”
How did Price’s unique personal history affect the sound of her music? Because of her religious devoutness and her desire to draw on her musical roots, much of it evokes hymns, spirituals or folk songs and dances from the African American tradition. One picturesque allusion in her 14-minute Violin Concerto from 1952, her last large-scale work, comes in the instrumentation. She gave a higher-than-usual profile to the brass, in passages that seem to recall classic scenes of Americana: Salvation Army brass bands playing hymns on street corners, or trumpet soloists offering sentimental tunes in outdoor concerts.
Elsewhere in the concerto, Price mingles tart harmonies, somewhere between Bartók and Gershwin, with warmly pensive ones, and the generous flow of songlike melody may make you regret she never wrote an opera.
The solo part tests the violinist’s fluency and lyricism above all; one of those nostalgic brass episodes, about 10 minutes into the piece, is embroidered by the solo violin in a 23-bar stream of glinting fast notes, like sunlight sparkling on a gentle stream. The effect is glorious — as is the musical strategy Price used to wrap up her concerto, an achingly beautiful sunset-like slow passage followed by a brief but rousing epilogue.
It’s unlikely Price knew at the time this would be her last orchestral work, but it is poignant to listen to this closing as an analogue to her musical legacy: a bittersweet farewell followed, after a pause, by a stirring resurgence.
Florence Price: Violin Concerto No. 2, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 14; Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $24-$134, 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org