St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) programs often have a common theme, especially when Music Director Stéphane Denève is on the podium. This Friday, February 2nd, the program notes suggest that the unifying theme is that time-honored source of revenue for composers, the commission. Composers have relied on individuals, organizations, and governments to fund new works for centuries.
[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]
Friday’s program opens with “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” by Valerie Coleman (b. 1970). Commissioned in 2019 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, “Umoja” (the Swahili word for “faith”) began life almost 20 years ago as a song for women’s choir. “It embodied,” writes the composer, “a sense of 'tribal unity', through the feel of a drum circle, the sharing of history through traditional ‘call and response’ form and the repetition of a memorable sing-song melody”. Coleman subsequently arranged it for her woodwind quintet, The Imani Winds, who recorded it for Koch International in 2006.
The 2019 version for full orchestra is the most recent of many arrangements of that simple tune, making it the basis of a tone poem in theme and variations format and more than doubling its length. Here the theme is first sung sweetly by the first violin, over a shimmering background of bowed percussion instruments, harp, and strings. Over the next fifteen minutes or so it goes through many transformations and, at one point, is “interrupted by dissonant viewpoints led by the brass and percussion sections, which represent the clash of injustices, racism and hate that threatens to gain a foothold in the world today.” It builds to a triumphant call for unity in the brass and percussion before returning to the quiet serenity of the opening.
According to the program notes by Justino Gordón-LeChevalé, "Umoja" is "a vibrant, musical invocation for a world increasingly in need of unity and freedom." This, along with Coleman's reference to "dissonant viewpoints," proposes another possible unifying idea in the program: the fact that all three composers who are represented here belong to historically marginalized groups. Coleman is a black woman, Florence Price (1887–1953), whose Symphony No. 3 closes the concert, was also a black woman, and the composer of the second work, Samuel Barber (1910–1981), was gay.
Barber, photographed by
Carl Van Vechten, 1944
Barber is represented by one of his more popular works, the Violin Concerto, Op. 14. It was commissioned in 1939 by Samuel Simeon Fels, founder of the soap company whose principal product, Fels-Naptha, will likely be familiar to those of us d'un certain âge. Fels wanted a concerto for his ward, the Ukrainian-born violinist Iso Briselli. What happened next has been the subject of some debate, but the consensus appears that Briselli’s violin coach, Albert Meiff, disliked the concerto and pressured Briselli not to play it.
Meiff offered to "help" by rewriting the violin part, apparently under the impression that he was a 20th-century Joseph Joachim. Barber wasn’t having any of it, however. He continued to work on the concerto, Briselli’s exclusivity elapsed, and the premiere finally took place in 1941 with soloist Albert Spaulding and The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Briselli and Barber remained friends and Meiff is now a footnote in musical history.
Meiff was wrong in any case. The concerto proved to be a success, often performed and recorded by a “who’s who” of notable violinists, including this Friday’s soloist Augustin Hadelich. There’s also a 1986 recording by the SLSO under Leonard Slatkin with Elmar Oliveira as soloist.
I have always loved the piece. The dramatic first movement, the contemplative second, and the hair-raising Presto in moto perpetuo finale combine to produce a concerto that is both emotionally moving and, in the finale, filled with virtuoso fireworks. Briselli thought the last movement was too short compared to the first two, but he seems to have missed the fact that sheer length isn’t the same as dramatic impact.
Finally, we turn to Florence Price. Unlike Barber, who had little difficulty finding audiences for his work, Price had to struggle for recognition for her work as a composer. Yes, her Symphony No. 1 earned her first place in the 1932 Wanamaker competition and the work got its first performance the following year by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That made her the first African American woman to see her work performed by a major symphony orchestra, and yet that symphony wasn’t published until 2008. Her Symphony No. 2 has been lost, as was her Symphony No. 4 until it turned up in her former summer home in Illinois in 2009.
By George Nelidoff
Her Symphony No. 3 has fared somewhat better. Commissioned by the WPA in 1938, it was first performed by the Detroit Civic Orchestra (a.k.a The Michigan WPA Symphony Orchestra) in 1940 to considerable acclaim. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a great admirer. In his review for the Detroit Free Press, J. D. Callaghan wrote that Price “spoke in the musical idiom of her own people, and spoke with authority.” He praised the symphony’s “emotional warmth” helped make the evening “one of profound melody satisfaction.” He singled out the “majestic beauty” of the second movement and noted that the finale “swept forward with great vigor.”
Even so, the symphony disappeared into the same oblivion that claimed so many of Price’s other works until early this century—for reasons that Price understood all too well. “To begin with,” she wrote in a 1943 letter to Serge Koussevitzky, “I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She went on to ask the Koussevitzky to consider one of her scores for performance, a request which the conductor (to his discredit) apparently ignored.
Price died of a stroke in 1953, so she didn’t live to see her work rescued from obscurity. Her Symphony No. 3, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. I heard a pretty persuasive performance of it last July at the Bravo! Vail festival by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is an enthusiastic admirer of Price’s work. She has also been on Stéphane Denève’s radar for years. He originally planned to present the Symphony No. 3 in 2021 on the same bill as the Dvorak Symphony No. 9, but the pandemic killed that program along with many others.
The work is innovative in both its structure and sound. Price’s approach to traditional structures like sonata form can be disconcertingly episodic, as can her cheerful mixture of traditional African American elements (including spirituals) with modernist dissonances, whole-tone passages, and even a somewhat ominous brass chorale that sounds like might have escaped from Siegfried’s funeral music in “Götterdämerung.” The slyly humorous third movement is based on the African-American juba dance and the fourth is a wild, turbulent, and dissonant Scherzo ending in (John Michael Cooper’s 2022 program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra) “a fury of roaring percussion and chordal interjections that finally manage to reclaim the work from turbulence and discord.”
This is music that takes a bit of mental retooling on the part of the listener, but it’s worth the effort.
The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the SLSO and violin soloist Augustin Hadelich in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto along with the local premieres Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” and the Symphony No. 3 by Florence Price. Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and 7:30 pm, February 2, at the Touhill Center on the UMSL campus. The Friday night concert will be broadcast Saturday night at 7:30 on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.