On Thanksgiving Eve, the Philadelphia Orchestra, whittled down to about half its usual size, offered another delightful one-hour concert during this pandemic-tempered season. Thanks are due to conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra members, administrators, volunteers, and donors for continuing to provide online streaming concerts during the current season. At Wednesday’s Verizon Hall event, the masked and physically distanced orchestra performed Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and the Philadelphia premiere of the Symphony No. 1 in E minor by Florence Price.
Music for somber times
Barber was a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and was visiting Europe with his partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, when he composed the Adagio in 1936 (originally as a string quartet movement). In some ways, life was idyllic, but war was on the horizon. Since its premiere under the baton of Arturo Toscanini in 1938, the work has won the hearts of people around the world, especially in times of global or national mourning. Those who reflected this past week on the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 will recall how local rock station WIBG played the Adagio and the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony almost exclusively during a week of national shock and grief.
But the Adagio’s timelessness transcends the valedictory, moving even into the world of the dance club 15 years ago when Dutch DJ Tiësto created a version with a pulsating industrial beat and flashing purple lights. The overall mood of the eight-minute anthem in its original form, though, is somber at best, and this orchestra’s measured, mellow performance served as a reminder that these are not joyful times.
Variety, balance, and sparkle
More uplifting was Price’s symphony, a work of delightful variety and gentle enthusiasms. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Price (1887-1953) was the first African American woman to compose a symphony played by a classical orchestra. She graduated with honors from the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied with George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. Price composed four symphonies, three concertos, a fantasy for piano and orchestra, and many other works.
The first symphony was composed in 1931, received the national Rodman Wanamaker Prize in 1932, and was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933. The work is in four movements, opening with a lovely theme on the bassoon and unfolding influences of Dvořák and the southern Spiritual tradition. There is some truly delightful writing for woodwinds (especially the oboe) and horn. This includes some charming bird calls that give the movement a pastoral flair. Throughout the movement, there is a thoughtful balance of dynamics and a respect for the instruments and their conversation with each other. Nézet-Séguin brought out these features in a conducting style that was clear, bright, and attentive to the composer’s voice.
The second movement has the qualities of a hymn, with dreamy echoes of Dvořák, but also other calm influences from the South. Melodies meander quietly, like tributaries of an old river, and a ripple of chimes seems to sparkle on the water. Some unusual percussive timbres accompany the dance tunes of the third movement, while the fourth crackles with good-natured energy. The movement is sometimes referred to as having jazz elements, but if so, they are the jazz of gentle popular tunes, not of smoke-filled speakeasies.
Price has a recognizable style and musical message that deserves to be heard, especially in challenging times. I found her symphony enchanting, and hope to hear more.
Image description: A photo of the Philadelphia Orchestra performing in Verizon Hall. Dramatic blue lights color the curving empty balconies above the tan stage. The orchestra musicians sit in chairs spaced six feet apart, and wear masks.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Streamed from Verizon Hall on November 25, 2020, via the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Digital Stage, with 72 hours of online access. philorch.org or (215) 893-1999.