This DPO Masterworks concert opens with a salute to the groundbreaking Price (1887-1953), widely regarded as the first African-American to achieve recognition as a classical composer. In fact, in 1933, she became the first African-American woman to have a composition played by a major American orchestra when the Chicago Symphony performed her “Symphony in E minor.” Along with serving as the head of the music department of what is now Clark Atlanta University, her career encompassed friendships with author Langston Hughes and contralto Marian Anderson, who helped her gain exposure as a composer. Anderson sang one of Price’s selections at her legendary 1939 Lincoln Memorial Easter concert. In addition, she once wrote in a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, “To begin with I have two handicaps — those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins,” adding “I would like to be judged on merit alone.”
The DPO will perform Price’s beautiful “Violin Concerto No. 2,” her final orchestral composition, which debuted in 1952. The colorful, harmonic and poignant piece, roughly 15 minutes in length, is steeped in musical influences such as hymns, spirituals and folk tunes, a natural reflection of her African-American upbringing in Little Rock, Arkansas. The piece also spotlights DPO Concertmaster Jessica Hung, who particularly enjoys the concerto’s lush second theme.
“Price’s style blended both traditional European Romanticism with the melodies of Negro spirituals, so she is most often compared to Dvorak, who embraced spirituals such as in the slow movement of the ‘New World’ Symphony,’ ” Hung said. “But I also hear a real synthesis of other composers and techniques, including whole-tone and pentatonic scales and bold harmonic language that makes the opening of the concerto sound more like a Puccini opera. It immediately establishes a sense of bravura and a dramatic struggle between the major and minor modes. On the other hand, the smoother entrance of the solo violin part and much of the actual writing for the violin throughout the piece is most like Tchaikovsky in its lyricism, arpeggiation and dotted rhythms that add a jaunty character.”
Taking into consideration Price as an African-American pioneer in the classical field, Hung hopes the performance brings greater attention to her influential legacy.
“For me, especially working on the piece in 2021 in the context of political and racial tensions boiling over in our country, it’s more important than ever to champion this concerto and putting this composer’s voice in the stage, not merely because of the inherit merit of her work,” Hung said. “I am as guilty as any other artist of exalting our great composers and our standard repertoire masterpieces, sometimes to the detriment of exploring and diving deep into lesser known works. While comparison to what is comfortable and familiar is unavoidable, the mark of greatness to me for any contemporary composition from the late 20th century and beyond is whether I can hear both that foundation of established norms and the unique idioms of the composer’s own voice. Florence Price is someone who learned and mastered the rules well enough to wield them as she wished and she chose not to break them but to carry them forward into a world where ‘old’ peacefully coexists with ‘new.’ Neal, my DPO colleagues and I are looking forward to the opportunity to bring this into reality, not just as an abstract piece of music, but as part of the harmonious fabric of the diverse and equitable society we need to build, now more urgently than ever.”
The concert also offers Beethoven’s short, sprightly and playful “Symphony No. 8.” The piece continues the DPO’s two-year celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
“Of all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s nine symphonies, this is probably the most overlooked, as if it’s something we just have to get past to get from Number Seven to Number Nine,” Gittleman said. “I think people overlook the Eighth because it’s so short, and we think of Beethoven as someone who pushed the symphony to be bigger and bigger. In fact, Eighth is tied with One as the shortest of them all. It’s half the length of the ‘Eroica’ and about a third as long as the Ninth. But its outer movements have just as much energy in them as the Seventh or the Ninth. In a way, it’s the shortest Beethoven symphony but also the most explosive.”
The in-theater performances will not have an intermission. All tickets are $50. The 8:30 p.m. performance will also be available for viewing via live stream for those who are not yet ready to attend an in-theater performance. Tickets for the live stream are $25 and also provides access to on-demand viewing of the performance until June, 30, 2021. There is also an on-demand option in which you can view the show virtually after the performance. Virtual Stream Memberships start at $100.
For more information on all three options, including purchasing tickets, go online to daytonperformingarts.org or call 937-228-3630.
HOW TO GO
What: Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Masterworks concert, featuring Beethoven 8 and Florence Price
Where: Schuster Center, 1 W. 2nd St., Dayton
When: Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, at 6 and 8:30 p.m., livestream at 8:30 p.m.
Cost: In-person tickets are $50. Live stream tickets are $25
More info: daytonperformingarts.org or call 937-228-3630