Is there a price to pay for fame coupled with the curse of color and gender? Were she alive today, Florence Price (1887-1953), said to be the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, might hold the answer.
Is there a price to pay for fame coupled with the curse of color and gender? Were she alive today, Florence Price (1887-1953), said to be the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, might hold the answer. In fact, by her own admission, she had two strikes against her: sex and race. She once wrote a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, stating, “To begin with, I have two handicaps … I am a woman, and I have some Negro blood in my veins. I would like to be judged on merit alone.”
Unfortunately, the conductor never gave her music a chance, but along the way, a few others did, among them the famed Philadelphia Orchestra. On Thursday, Feb. 18, 8 p.m., through Feb. 25, 11 p.m., the Orchestra will virtually present pianist Michelle Cann, a Chestnut Hill resident making her debut with the Orchestra's first performance of Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement.
“This is the first time I'll be playing with the Orchestra,” Cann told us last week, “and I think sometimes if you don't know the right people or don't have the right connections, you might not be given an opportunity. I have been in Philly since 2010 and always wanted to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but for whatever reason, it just didn't happen.”
And then along came Cornell University, which has a program called ONEComposer that provides a platform for the study, performance and discussion of a single underrepresented composer's life and legacy. “Cornell is actually the co-sponsor of this concert debut, and their involvement helped bring Price's work to life,” Cann said. “It's also given me the opportunity to play with this world-class orchestra.”
Cann has played a version of this work by Price before, after it had been lost for decades and eventually was resurrected by the Center for Black Music Research. In fact, in 2000 a substantial collection of her work and papers was found in an abandoned, dilapidated house in Illinois. And so thanks to all those who cared, as well as Cann's version of the piece, audiences will now hear this long-lost Concerto.
Cann grew up in a small town in Florida and was always into music.
“My father is a music teacher for classes K through 12 in a private Christian school. So I grew up playing in the band and singing in the choir, all the while learning different styles and different instruments, as did my three sisters. And with my dad being a music teacher, there was an expectation in my household that we would all study music.”
And Cann didn't disappoint. At 14 she made her orchestral debut, and over time she has performed with prestigious orchestras around the world. Cann first attended the Cleveland Institute of Music. Next, it was the desire to attend The Curtis Institute of Music that brought her to Philadelphia. She now lives happily in Chestnut Hill.
“I was moving out of my condo in West Philly and looking around for some other place to call home,” Cann volunteered. “A friend of mine who lives in Chestnut Hill, someone I came to visit, made me realize how much I really loved Chestnut Hill. I loved the neighborhood. Everyone was very friendly. I love Germantown Avenue which had great restaurants and was a great place to walk. The Wissahickon trail was right there. It also has that small-town feel, which I love and reminds me of the small town I grew up in. That's just the way I like to live.”
When not traveling around from city to city giving concerts, Cann, 33, is also on the faculty of Curtis Institute, serves as Music Director at the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia and teaches a number of private students as well. But getting hit with Covid began to change her life.
“It was difficult at first. During the first part of it, l was in denial. You know, you go along and everything is fine, and then it hits. I didn't expect every concert of mine to be canceled. But when that did happen, I got very depressed and didn't want to practice the piano much.” she said. “But during the summer, I started to reconnect virtually to audiences. I did a concert online that went very well. I got so many great comments that it began to inspire me. It was not the same as it had been, but we were still touching people. And people really need to be inspired by beautiful music. And so that's my goal now.”
Tickets to the virtual performances can be purchased at www.philorch.com