The Philadelphia Orchestra plays Florence Price

Opera music

Angel Blue with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at Carnegie Hall.
Photo: Steve J. Sherman

For as long as I can remember, American orchestras have searched for the key to relevance. They tried screenings, apps, collaborations with pop stars, children’s concerts, movie parties, ad campaigns aimed at young people, singles parties and dutiful performances of new music they didn’t believe in. coming across as deadly shy and eager to please. But the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is in some sort of semi-residence at Carnegie Hall this season, seems to have shaken off that legacy of awkwardness, or at least it did on Tuesday, sounding fresh, energetic and current as a group that had something urgent and positive to say about America in 2022.

It’s common practice at symphony concerts to commission short works and then treat them like shards of broken glass: either throw them away quickly or wrap them in Beethoven Bubble Wrap so no one gets hurt. Here, the orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézét-Séguin, took the opposite route. The only vaguely canonical work, that of Samuel Barber Knoxville: Summer 1915was sandwiched between new American plays, a Matthew Aucoin sequel Eurydice (the whole opera recently had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera) and Valerie Coleman’s orchestral song “This Is Not a Small Voice”. That first half turned into a feat of urgent historical correction, a performance of Florence Price’s Symphony No. (Philadelphians recently saved this work with Price’s Second Symphony.)

“It’s not a small voice,” soprano Angel Blue sings at the start of Coleman’s song, and it guarantees that at the end we’ll hear it loud and clear like the cry of a seraph. Coleman set Sonia Sanchez’s angry 1995 poem (“This is LaTanya’s voice. / Kadesha. Shaniqua…”) to music, but the music turns anger into celebration. Coleman’s score has a velvety iridescence that suits Blue’s voice, which in turn blends with the Philadelphians’ rich orchestral palette.

Price’s First is sometimes considered a forgery of Dvorak New world Symphony from 1893. The implication is that, writing her first symphony in 1933 in her mid-40s, she was somehow unaware of the four decades of tidal changes in music. To make this comparison is to do Price a disservice: Sure she didn’t do Dvořák as well as Dvořák, if that was her goal. But I don’t believe it. Could she have been so fascinated by the idea of ​​a “great and noble” black music gypsy (her words) that she could think of nothing better than to imitate him? She had her own ideas on how to merge the different traditions she covered.

She was barely out of step. Like other symphonists of her generation (Howard Hanson, for example), she endeavored to translate a European art form into an American language. Like Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Virgil Thomson and other composers sensitive to black folk traditions, she aspired to a style that was both elevated and authentic. Shared ambitions for a collective project that remains unfinished; no composer has won the race to understand it.

Hearing Price’s symphony played with such fluidity and precision, I was struck by his optimism and sense of common purpose, two qualities that seem out of reach today. All those broad-shouldered themes, the aw-shucks manner and kind dance steps, the festive energy tempered by solemn brass choirs, the campfire roughness filtered through luscious vibrato strings – these are not examples of someone sniffing through a picturesque past but the sounds of an artist exploiting the Zeitgeist. Price wrote his first symphony in 1933, when America was a stew of economic misery, raging epidemics, racist violence, political ferocity and regional divisions. Still, the score is larded with hard-earned joy. If his music reminds you a little of that of Aaron Copland, it is because the two composers were going through their difficult present by projecting an imaginary past onto a hopeful future. Copland was Jewish, gay, and originally from Brooklyn at a time when none of that was a social asset. Price was female, black and born in Arkansas, three strikes that effectively left her out of American music history. Yet in the midst of the Depression, the two found ways to encode into music a belief in American perfectibility – the belief that the country was more than the sum of its flaws. If that sounds retrograde or naïve today, well, the Philadelphia Orchestra suggested that attitude couldn’t be more timely. The program combined nostalgia and hope, offering them in the form of a package accessible to all political persuasions, two powerfully expressive aspects of a long American tradition.