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Music by first Black female composer gets local recognition

Florence Price was the first Black female composer to have a symphony played by a major orchestra in the 1930s.

BOULDER, Colo. — Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra (PMC) kicks off its 16th season this weekend with “Apotheosis of the Dance,” featuring works by Beethoven, Florence Price, and Ben Morris. The program is the regional premiere of the original version of Florence Price’s "Piano Concerto in One Movement." Price is the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, and her music was frequently performed in the 1930s and 1940s. The performance this weekend is part of a mission for PMC Music Director and Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis.

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“Our mission is to do traditional, diverse, new music and we’ve always devoted about 30% of our program to music that’s underrepresented for unjust reasons,” Katsarelis said. “About 1/3 of the music we do is by composers of color or women composers or the Jewish composers who were lost in the Holocaust.”

Credit: Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra
Born in Little Rock Arkansas in the late 1800's, Florence Price attended New England Conservatory of Boston at the age of 15.

Florence Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She attended New England Conservatory of Boston at the age of 15 where she studied organ, piano, and composition. She wrote songs or transcribed spirituals that the first Black female opera singer Marian Anderson sang around the world.

“She was a very active, successful composer with great reviews for everything that she did,” Katsarelis said. “Somehow her music got lost to us until the last decade when some of it got found including the orchestration for the piano concerto.”

Credit: Byron Reed
Pro Musica Colorado Music Director and Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis said, "I think a lot of us can empathize with having this artistic impulse and not always having a channel for it."

Katsarelis said Price’s full score and orchestral parts for the piano concerto were found in 2019 in the attic of a house once thought to be owned by the composer.

“We’re in the first wave of orchestras doing her original orchestration and it’s just a great piece,” Katsarelis said. “It’s a wonderful piece of Americana from the 1930s and all this music that is influenced by African American background that at this point, we embrace it as American music and it’s wonderful.”

Credit: Byron Reed
Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra

Katsarelis said the concerto’s first movement has the sound of spiritual, call and response and a juba dance—an African American dance derived from the plantations during slavery. It’s music that concert pianist Jennifer Hayghe said is part of Price’s Americana and perhaps the composer’s downfall.

Credit: Byron Reed
Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra

“We hear all parts of her America in this piece and which perhaps is why it wasn’t performed in many years,” Hayghe said. “Classical music certainly has contributed to systematic racism, and I think everybody realized how many amazing pieces, how many amazing composers, how many amazing musicians we have not let shine over the years.”

Credit: Byron Reed
Jennifer Hayghe (left) is the piano soloist for the concerto. She said, "This was Florence Price’s Americana, so we hear spirituals, we hear call and response gospel, we hear the juba which was an African American plantation dance."

Hayghe is the featured piano soloist of the concerto. She said she’s excited to be part of a trend to resurrect music from underrepresented artists.

“All around the country, people are starting to perform this piece again,” Hayghe said. “So here in Colorado, we’re right up there with that trend of playing it.”

Both Katsarelis and Hayghe hope their audience will walk away feeling inspired about Florence Price and her music that goes beyond the stage.

Credit: Byron Reed
Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra

“It took some terrible things to open our eyes and to open our hearts,” Katsarelis said. “It’s time to really appreciate and enjoy what everybody has to bring to this, and Florence Price has brought something really special, and I think that can be very healing.”

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