“It is a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion… worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.” So ran the review of the 1933 premiere of Florence Price’s First Symphony in the Chicago Daily News. And yet it doesn’t have a place in the regular symphonic repertory. At least, not yet. There was already a resurgence of interest in Price in recent years, but the flurry of activity to programme her works this year as a response to Black Lives Matter – this is the seventh review we’ve published since October – suggests things are finally changing.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Jeff Fusco

Price’s was the first symphony by a female African-American composer to be played by a major American orchestra (the Chicago Symphony) and yesterday’s stream from Verizon Hall saw another of the “Big Five” – The Philadelphia Orchestra – perform it complete for the first time. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who had previously conducted the fourth movement in a 2019 Martin Luther King Jr tribute concert, spoke about the importance of programming that encourages a much more “diverse representation of who we are as a society”.

During his spell as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York (1892-5), Antonín Dvořák advocated the use of African-American and Native American folk music to create a “national style”. Dvořák’s influence can certainly be heard in the opening movement of Price’s symphony, in particular the wide prairies and vigorous rhythms of the New World Symphony. Nézet-Séguin took an expansive, exploratory approach, revelling in the tender woodwind exchanges of flautist Patrick Williams and oboist Peter Smith rather than forging ahead. Social distancing requirements meant that the strings were reduced to just fifteen in number, so the famously rich “Philadelphia Sound” felt undernourished here, robbing the music of those big Dvořákian string surges. Conversely, the sparse string numbers had helped in the brief prelude to the symphony, the Philadelphia strings giving an account of Samuel Barber’s Adagio that avoided mawkishness, textures clean and open.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra © Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The hymn-like chorales of the Largo maestoso, reflecting Price’s interest in church music, were played with great nobility by the Philadelphia brass, Nézet-Séguin again taking his time, moulding the phrases with care and obvious affection. The symphony has a slightly lop-sided feel; having taken half an hour over the first two movements, the final two are dispatched in under ten minutes. But they’re both energetic, with Afro-American idioms to the fore. The Juba, sometimes known as the “hambone”, was a dance imported by African slaves to the American plantations. The Philadelphians’ playing was graceful rather than sassy, perforated with neat drum rhythms and a wind whistle – more restrained than the swanee whistle I’ve heard in recordings. Nézet-Séguin injected plenty of zip into the Presto finale, where the small string component demonstrated its agility. I hope that, post-pandemic, they perform it again with a full orchestra though, to get the music fully under their skin. It’s a symphony that really deserves to be heard. 

This performance was reviewed from The Philadelphia Orchestra's video stream