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Lost concerto by a Black composer finds a champion.  BPO concert repeats today, Sunday at 2:30pm

THE BASICS: Pianist Michelle Cann performs African-American composer Florence Price’s long-lost Piano Concerto as guest conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech conducts the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at Kleinhans Music Hall in the quirky “Burleske” by Richard Strauss and Beethoven’s fun (and short) Eighth Symphony.  The concert begins with young African-American composer Carlos Simon’s electric “Fate Now Conquers” inspired by Beethoven. Concert repeats Sunday, March 5, at 2:30 pm.

Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes

When the eighth symphony by the great Beethoven isn’t the most memorable piece on the program titled “BEETHOVEN’S EIGHTH,” it’s a hint that this Sunday’s repeat is going to be one eye-opening concert.  To hear some of what I’m writing about, I’ve put in some links below.  One short listen and you’ll be a believer, too.

So maybe you haven’t heard of Florence Price, born in Little Rock, and educated at the prestigious New England Conservatory, even though she produced over 300 works.  You’re not alone.  WNED Classical’s Program Director Mark Michaud wrote “Just a few years ago, I heard Florence Price’s Violin Concerto #1 for the very first time.  I was captivated by the sound. It was fresh and innovative.  I wondered why I had never been exposed to her music before.  The truth is, in all the years of classical musicology, there is barely a mention of composers of color, even though these musicians have contributed significantly to the evolution of music.  Florence Price is just one of a plethora of such composers that have been overlooked.” 

And, on top of being marginalized, it didn’t help that Price’s Piano Concerto was lost for about 70 years.  It’s just a fact that there are hundreds of lush, romantic piano concertos in the literature.  To get into the public consciousness, music needs a champion, someone who will adopt the work, make it her own, and take it out into the world.  For us, that’s Michelle Cann, whom listeners may remember as a co-host for a while on NPR’s “From the Top” (still heard locally on WNED Classical Saturday evenings at 7:00 pm).  

Cann takes no prisoners at the keyboard.  The audience fell in love with her performances (she played, in all, three pieces) and it was obvious from her walk-on applause from the orchestra that the musicians had fallen in love with her, too.  I can only imagine that if you attended the Curtis Institute of Music where she also teaches, you might switch your major to piano, just to be around her.

My first impression of the Price Piano Concerto was “Dvorak’s Americana meets Rachmaninov.”  While the orchestra was playing music underneath the piano that reminded me of sections of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” or his “American Quartet” (both inspired by his time in America listening to indigenous and African-American music) the piano opening was pure Rachmaninov, with big pounding chords up and down the keyboard, coupled with dazzling arpeggios for a “wall of sound.”  You can get a short sample of that sound with Michelle Cann and The Philadelphia Orchestra if you scroll down after you click here.

Even though it’s titled “Piano Concerto in One Movement” this 18-minute work is actually in three parts, concluding with a section that’s pure Americana, at times sounding like George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue” and at times like Jerome Kern’s 1927 musical SHOWBOAT.  

To hear the 1920s jazzy “Juba Dance” sound of the conclusion of the Price Piano Concerto listen to a five-minute selection from a rehearsal with Michelle Cann and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

On Saturday, guest conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech (currently music director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic) flipped the printed program slightly, putting then just 21-year-old composer Richard Strauss’s “Burleske” for piano and orchestra before the Price.  That was a good choice, because as good as it is, it would have been anti-climactic after the Price concerto.  Now, on Saturday night, we also got an encore, African-American Juilliard grad classical/jazz pianist Hazel Scott’s arrangement of the “Improvisation on Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# minor.”  I’m not including a link because the versions I found don’t hold a candle to what Michelle Cann played on the stage at Kleinhans.  (Although you may want to Google composer Hazel Scott, who has a fascinating story of her own.)  

The evening began with a marvelous 5-minute piece that the composer himself described as “Jolting stabs couple with an agitated groove with every persona.  Frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depict the uncertainty of life that hovers over us.”  That’s how Black composer (and Millennial) Carlos Simon described his “Fate Now Conquers” which was, according to Simon, inspired by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.  

Yes, indeed, we heard four brilliant pieces of music all before intermission, after which we got one of the “overlooked” Beethoven symphonies, No. 8.  It’s not just a cliché that many of the even-numbered symphonies by Beethoven don’t get the love of the odd-numbered symphonies (such as #3 “Eroica,” the famous “dah-dah-dah-DAH” 5th Symphony, the choral 9th perennially voted #1 audience favorite by WNED listeners).  Even Symphony #7 is credited with inspiring so many other composers, from John Corigliano to Carlos Simon.

Yet even Beethoven himself is reported to have said that the 8th is better than the 7th.  G.B. Shaw (besides being a playwright he was a fierce music critic) wrote that “In all subtler respects the Eighth is better [than the 7th].”  So, Symphony No. 8 was the perfect choice to wrap up a concert of new or less familiar works.

Kleinhans Music Hall is at “3 Symphony Circle” Buffalo, 14201 where Porter Avenue, Richmond Avenue, North Street and Wadsworth meet at a traffic circle.  Visit www.bpo.org or call 716-885-5000.  Full-service bar in the lobby or across the lobby in the Mary Seaton Room.  Masks are optional.

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