Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 19, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Masterworks In-Depth

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
January 15-20, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

The fourth program in the HSO’s monthly “Masterworks In-Depth” series of virtual conversations about music they would have played at Covid-cancelled concerts this season will be available on the HSO web site through Wednesday, January 20, at 5:00 pm. Led by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, this 69-minute webinar focused on two of three pieces originally scheduled.

This month’s concert would have highlighted African-American music. While Kuan omitted so-called “dean of African-American composers” William Grant Still’s orchestral rhapsody “Darker America,” the time she gained was well spent on his lesser-known contemporary, Florence Price. The first African-American woman whose music was performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony in 1933), her “Concerto in One Movement” was to be performed by rising young pianist Michelle Cann, with guest conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, founding director of the Philadelphia-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. Kuan’s Zoom conversations with both African-American musicians were enlightening and inspiring.

But Kuan began with a video performance clip from the second movement (whose main theme is also known as “Going Home”) of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, the concert’s featured work. Appointed in 1892 by American arts patron Jeannette Thurber as head of her National Conservatory of Music in New York, Dvorak reflected the spirit of African-American music in this masterpiece and championed it as the basis of a distinctly American style of classical music.
Segments Kuan showed next from the documentary “Caged Bird” made it clear that although the Arkansas-born Price was a musical “child prodigy,” a lack of career opportunities led her into what Johnson called the kind of “forced entrepreneurship that arises from disenfranchisement, a profoundly American experience.” A video clip of Cann performing a Price sonata movement confirmed what Kuan called the composer’s “unique voice,” which radiated, in Cann’s words, “so much heart and soul.”
The conversation also clarified what a difference mentors and role models have made in the careers of all three women, all the way from Brahms mentoring Dvorak, to Thurber’s acceptance of women and African-Americans at her conservatory, to the impact on ten-year-old Cann of seeing African-American conductor Thomas Wilkins on the podium, to the life-changing advice of her (and Kuan’s) mentor Marin Alsop that Johnson should start her own ensemble.