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Yannick Nézet-Séguin talks about why he's in love with the music of Florence Price

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Chris Lee/Philadelphia Orchestra
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Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra’s critically acclaimed Deutsche Grammophon recording of Florence Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 won a 2022 GRAMMY award for Best Orchestral Performance.

Composer, organist, and educator Florence Price (1887-1953) is becoming increasingly well known—attention long overdue, nearly 90 years after her first symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony on June 15th, 1933.

As a Black, female composer writing in the first part of the 20th century, she had few opportunities to have her large pieces performed. Price wrote four symphonies, as well as concertos and other orchestral works, choral works, chamber music and art songs totaling over 300 compositions.

Florence Price's first and third symphonies are celebrated in The Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent GRAMMY-winning album, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Here, from its new recording, The Philadelphia Orchestra plays the first movement of Florence Price’s first symphony:

Many of Price's works were only recently unearthed—found in 2009, in an abandoned house where she once lived.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s album, featuring Price’s first and third symphonies, is part of a new recording initiative to record all of her symphonies with Deutsche Grammophon.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin met with me on Zoom to talk about how he discovered the composer and the significance of her music to the Orchestra and the classical music world. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Congratulations on your GRAMMY nomination for your album of Florence Price symphonies one and three.  Can you talk about how you made this decision to proceed this way with her music?

My personal connection with Florence Price dates from about five years ago where, in one of our concerts that we give annually for the Martin Luther King Jr. day, we performed one movement of Florence Price’s First Symphony. And I fell in love with her music and thought: let's explore it!

So I asked for the scores of the three symphonies that we can play now [numbers 1, 3, and 4]. We know there are four symphonies; there's a Symphony No. 2 somewhere, in an attic or a basement somewhere; and I’m still hopeful that we're going to find the music for it, but at present we have only numbers one, three and four.

We had programmed the first symphony during the pandemic, and it was such a success; it's our dream to really bring back to life those works. Deutsche Grammophon was very quick at agreeing with us that we should go through a journey of her works. It’s a true testament to Florence Price’s genius, but also to show institutions — like The Philadelphia Orchestra and a legendary label like Deutsche Grammophon—if we team up together, we can really make a case for music that's been too long forgotten and overlooked. So this consecration of the GRAMMY nomination, and hopefully a GRAMMY win, is really significant and tells us that we should continue in that direction.

Do you feel as if we're not only discovering wonderful new music that was written a while ago, but also learning about a human being who has a message for us?  What was her message then,  and how do we relate to it today?

In the case of Florence Price, it's a message of courage; a message of knowing herself and what she could bring to the world. It’s heartbreaking to see that she herself was able to express to people that she had two handicaps: she was a woman and she was Black. And that's injustice that's happening in so many ways in our world, and still is happening. It’s time for institutions in the classical music field to do our best to actually address these injustices. And that's one of the important messages

I think as a composer, Florence Price is using the best of the European way of writing for an orchestra. Composers like Brahms and Dvorak were influenced by folklore of their region of the world, and when Dvorak came to North America, he was influenced by the folklore that he heard in the vernacular of American music. And, of course, Dvorak being a genius, was able to transfer this in a masterpiece, which is Dvorak’s 9th Symphony.

But I find it equally as valid and interesting, having someone like Florence Price in her First Symphony—coming from America—knowing, living, and representing the traditional American way of writing rhythms and writing melodies, whether it's religious music or music from the plantations. She was then using the European way of orchestrating in order to bring the message to the world.

It’s kind of the opposite road and I feel that there's so much space for that in our programming and in our concert programs, in general. So it's a very important link in the history of our country in music. And I couldn't be more thrilled that we recorded not only Symphonies 1 and 3; we also recorded number 4, and will record and present in concert more of Florence Price’s work in the future.

*****

Here are some other performances of music by Florence Price:

The Women’s Philharmonic performs Florence Price’s Mississippi Suite:

Here, Lara Downes plays Florence Price - Fantasie Negre (1929)

As senior producer of arts and culture, Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and producer of The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series, to which she also contributes weekly intermission interviews. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.