Price-full Piano Discoveries
Scenes in Tin Can Alley: The Piano Music of Florence Price Josh Tatsuo Cullen, piano. Blue Griffin Records 615 Total Time: 50:35 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
This past year, the Philadelphia Orchestra received a “Best Orchestral Performance” Grammy for their recording of two symphonies by Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953). The Arkansas-born composer was the first African-American woman to have a major symphony orchestra perform her work. That piece, her Symphony No. 1 in e (1932) received an, admittedly small, reward but it would lead to her music being further programmed by Frederick Stock in Chicago where here career really would flourish. Price studied at the New England Conservatory with George Whitfield Chadwick. After this, she returned to teach music in segregated schools in Arkansas and Georgia. Eventually her and her husband decided to leave the rising racial turbulence in the South for Chicago. In these earlier days, she taught piano and would compose a great number of pedagogical pieces for children. The Chicago Black Renaissance was an important collective of other African-American artists and it was through these connections that her work would begin to gain broader awareness. With opportunities to now write for orchestras and performances guaranteed, she would have the opportunity to display her talent on an even larger scale. The present release consists of a number of works that were part of manuscripts discovered at Price’s Illinois summer home in 2009. Many are recorded for the first time. In the piano music here, we see Price as an accomplished composer for piano blending modern trends with a personal musical experience.
A 1928 set of three pieces, the album’s title work, which opens this release, is a great example of the blend of ragtime, period jazz, and pentatonic scale exploration. The latter makes some of the music of “Night” have some moments that are quite stunning in their harmonic shifts with its bluesy, impressionistic overtones added for good measure. Would be so hard to imagine that the likes of Gershwin’s solo piano music and songs would be a distant cousin to Price’s own language here? One can get a sense of that especially with her interesting rhythmic writing. In the Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman (1938-42), we can hear this blended with the impressionist flourishes. Price also likes to use the African juba dance patterns and this informs “A Gay Moment”. (One can certainly hear how this dance influenced early ragtime). But it is in the slower material that the gorgeous extended harmonic writing and beautiful lyricism of her music really comes to the fore. One can hear this further in the later Village Scenes (1942). Written around 1940, Clouds shows Price further exploring whole tone scale writing (perhaps with an awareness of Debussy’s work). It is a quite stunning piece which is heard now in its original form discovered in manuscript. The 5 Preludes (1926-1932) included here provide a rarer look at more abstract musical thinking devoid of descriptive titles.
The album wraps up with a couple of pieces that are culturally referential. First is a brief Cotton Dance (ca. 1940s) where Price has moved on to explore boogie woogie bass lines within whole tone harmony and more chromatic segments. The last work is a three-movement set of Portraits of Uncle Ned. Each movement represents a different age of this character that may have its roots in the American minstrel tradition.
Price’s music tilts more toward the Impressionist early-century style but her harmonic writing comes out of the American ragtime and jazz traditions. With these tools at her disposal, she creates some rather gorgeous reflective music interchanging with engaging rhythmic pieces. It is all quite stunning music. Her music stands alongside that of the chamber works of William Grant Still with its equal exploration of these musical styles merged into a distinct musical voice. While it may be attractive to jump to her large-scale works, appreciation for her skill as a composer will be even better achieved starting with releases such as this that demonstrate her musical voice across a wide swath of music. It does transport the listener back to an earlier time.
Josh Tatsuo Cullen performs these works as if they have just been a natural part of the repertoire. He shapes the lyric material well with just enough flourish to bring out the occasional technical virtuosity needed with a great attention to rhythmic detail. His performances are captured in a warm acoustic that is quite inviting on its own. This new release of Price’s music further helps broaden our awareness of her compositional gifts with some quite excellent music in an album that should be part of every American music fans collection.