Review: Ethiopia's Shadow in America (1932) composed by Florence B. Price. Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra. Feb. 15, 2022, Bailey Performance Center, Morgan Concert Hall, Kennesaw, GA Review by Geoffrey Loff
What are the characteristics by which a piece might be considered ‘American?’ Does it need to reflect the spirit of rugged individualism? Must it inspire hope, optimism, and something of the manifest destiny and spirit attributed to American culture? Must it tell a story uniquely of the new world, with the sounds and flavors so often associated with Gershwin and Copland? Or does the composer simply need to be American? Ethiopia’s Shadow in America by Florence B. Price (1887-1953) is in part all of these things, and an orchestral work that tells a story unique to her. More than that, it is a work that is challenging to a university orchestra, but not overly demanding in length and ability. Price’s work can open the dialogue for discussion about representation, inclusion, and Americanism in classical music, all told as only she could tell it.
The Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Nathaniel Parker, gives a spirited performance of Price’s work, making a convincing statement as to why it ought to be programmed more, especially in university settings. The first movement, Introduction and Allegretto: The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave, captures sombre gravitas in the brass chords and gossamer woodwind strands that evaporate out of them, while colorfully leaning into the exotic ‘blue’ notes. The exposition of the dramatic tune that follows embodies at once the suffering of our protagonist(s), deftly flavored with the flattened 7th, painting a uniquely American sound world while at the same time tipping the hat towards Dvořák, one of Price’s biggest inspirations. This subject is given in a number of guises, here dramatic and bold, there plaintively by the winds, then agitated from tremolo strings, before resting on the half-dominant. Here Parker and his ensemble serve the music well, playing with drama and intensity, and putting in high relief the contrast between these various episodes. An extended oboe solo by Catherine Walker follows, accompanied by clarinets, which was certainly a highlight of the performance. Kudos to the woodwind section for delicacy, blending, and balance. A lively coda closes out the first movement with appropriate flair and verve; think Gershwin’s Cuban Overture (written the same year, 1932).
Undoubtedly the heart of this soulful work, the Andante - His Resignation and Faith features a wonderful cantilena melody, including solos from the violin and cello richly accompanied by strings. In terms of training the orchestra, this section is ideal: broad cantilenas to inspire a singing tone, imagination in how to shape, emphasis on bow speed and pressure, matching vibrato and ensemble rhythm in the quicker notes, all through sustained legato. The string section from The Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra left something to be desired, but the spirit of the work was still very much present and moving. Commendations go to Benjamin Farrow on solo horn, and once again the oboe, whose timbre is perhaps representative of our protagonist’s faith in this tender and deeply personal middle movement.
The uncertain musical footing that opens the final movement Allegro. His Adaptation; A fusion of his native and acquired impulses is wonderfully captured by Parker and his group; it is a metamorphosis of the second movement’s subject, adapting to the bustle of the finale’s optimistic and quasi frantic energy. This is given extended treatment in timbral dialogue throughout the orchestra, which in turn leads to an upbeat bustling tune (all of which is derived motivically from the first movement’s subject). Occasionally, the uncomfortable downward arpeggio motif and the high woodwind and brass writing get the best of the players, leading to intonation and ensemble issues. However, the spirit of the work prevails. The culmination of the movement is a grand restatement of the protagonist’s opening melody from the first movement, after which the work races towards a precipitous close. This is handled with aplomb by the Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra, with a ferocity and daring appropriate to the work.
What statement is Florence Price making with this ending? So much d minor, no final metamorphosis of the tune at the conclusion. Did our protagonist acclimate to her new environment? At her core, does she remain unchanged, the same defiant soul that opened the work? These are questions to help engage the community and orchestra players themselves.
Geoffrey Loff, conductor and pianist, is currently on the music staff at Staatsoper Berlin. He was a recently assistant conductor at Houston Grand Opera, Music Director of HGOco, and conducting fellow at Aspen Conducting Academy. In 2022, Loff made conducting debuts at Opera San Jose and Gulfshore Opera, and was cover conductor at San Francisco Opera.