I hope you are having a great Black History Month!   I know I am, and as part of my celebration I attended the Camellia Symphony Orchestra‘s concert, titled Past, Present, and Future. An ambitious and excellent community orchestra in Sacramento, they offered an exciting program on Saturday in celebration of Black History Month. Now in their 56th season, the Camellias performed in the regal auditorium of the C.K. McClatchy High School.  The program featured music by Florence Price, Julia Perry, William Grant Still, and Chris Castro.  It’s a challenging proposition for an orchestra to put forward a whole program of not-very well-known music, and the Music Director Christian Baldini, and the Camellia Symphony are to be applauded for their bold programming and excellent artistic execution.

Julia Perry (1924-1979) is among my favorite composers, but my opinion is based on only two pieces – her Stabat Mater for strings and mezzo-soprano, and the other is the work we heard Saturday, Short Piece for Orchestra (from the early 1960s). Perry was accomplished, highly educated, and widely lauded.  She won fellowships and prizes, as well as several commissions, but she lacked consistent support and the security of an academic position. There are, of course, many such cases for women and ethnic minorities — think of W.E.B. DuBois who was could not find employment despite his multiple Harvard degrees. Perry composed in a modern idiom of the classical music tradition, but she did not find acceptance from the proponents of that tradition.

“Short Work for Orchestra” is a dramatic piece, and it made me ponder that Perry should have written for film scores – but of course that option was not available to an African- American woman.  “Short Work” begins with an urgent, insistent motive, like an alarming questioning that sets a mood of taut energy. Passages of poignant lyricism follow, and Concertmaster Jane Park was eloquent in several solos. Different emotions overlap contrapuntally, as the cellos offer a somber meditation, contrasted with jolting returns of the opening motive, which is also recalled as a pulsing closing gesture.  I was reminded of the edgy scores of Bernard Hermann – I could definitely hear Perry’s work in a Hitchcock-ian setting.  But I am glad to be able to hear it in any setting. It demanded drive and precision from the musicians, and fortunately received that treatment.

In his pre-concert remarks, Maestro Baldini observed the frequent difficulties of finding scores that are off the beaten track.  Perry’s work was one such case, and the story of Florence Price (1887-1953) is another example of a composer’s legacy having been overlooked in the past, and difficult to access in the present.  The story of the dramatic rediscovery of decaying boxes of her music being found in the attic of an abandoned house has been much in the news in recent months. The release of the recordings of two re-discovered violin concertos, and all four of her symphonies, as well as the acquisition of her catalog of compositions by the venerable music publisher, G. Schirmer. It is hoped that this company will help in making her music more readily available.

SO! It was very exciting to get to hear a live performance of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with Er-Gene Kahng as soloist – she also performs on the new recording and has made promoting Florence Price’s music central to her mission in music.

Kahng spoke eloquently in the pre-concert talk, about her feeling of connection with the composer through seeing these moldy, hand-copied scores.  And then how it made her have a sense of dedication: in contrast to the traditional music canon that has many editions in libraries and that can be bought through many retailers, here is music that really needs her in order to be known and heard.

Price’s musical language is often compared to music of the past, with composers including Dvořák and Tchaikovsky often being invoked.  As Er-Gene Kahng observed “It’s easy [for a composer] to just negate the tradition and go your own way, and many composers do that, become revolutionaries and reject the traditions that come before them. But Florence Price makes her peace with tradition, she resolves that conflict with the past, and yet has a unique voice.”

Listening to the highly chromatic, rich harmonic language of the Violin Concerto, Price’s use of a familiar palette does indeed have a striking and unique result. The bold harmonic twists and turns of the opening give it a sense of drive, but then the violin’s entrance is at once lyrical and virtuosic. A more playful mood is achieved as the orchestral lightly banters beneath the violin’s flourishes and sweeps.  A middle section has a solemn hymn-like mood, and also warm melodic ideas. Several times the piece seems to approach a calm, tranquil ending, only to be roused by the recall of the vigorous opening idea as a brash fanfare.  The sectional structure, with abrupt changes of mood remind me (again) of film score writing, with quick cuts or scene changes.  But with its post-romantic vocabulary, Price’s music might be compared with a film composer like Erich Korngold.  It all took great skill for the orchestra to navigate, and Kahng’s violin offered clarity and warmth of tone, as well as brilliant precision in the technical demands.  It was a completely thrilling performance, and I joined the audience in an energized ovation.

The second half of the program brought back Kahng in a premiere of a new work.  Chris Castro’s “Sing High” was composed for the Camellia Symphony Orchestra. Also a string bass player, Castro had performed for two years with the orchestra, and thus knows their strengths.  The work drew on some elements from jazz, such as the thick textural swoops, and the strings ascending in dense tone clusters. Muted brass sounded a solemn utterance, as in a hymn.  Violin soloist Er-Gene Kang was expressive in a wide range of vocabularies, trading lilting melodic ideas with the concertmaster, and then later having an explosive and brilliant exchange with a woodblock.

In his pre-concert comments, Chris Castro asserted his ideal of music whose meaning is abstract.  He observed “this piece is very personal to me but I would never tell anyone why.” Well, on the one hand, I can understand that composers might not want the public to know their private life. But on the other hand, telling a story helps to make an unknown work accessible.  A program may be a “crutch” but it gives the audience “a leg up.”  At any rate, the orchestra navigated the surprises of this new work with great skill, and it was definitely a thought-provoking piece.

William Grant Still’s name does have some recognition, and his Symphony no. 1, Afro- American, is his best-known work – but my impression is that it is not played enough.  And it certainly makes me want to hear more of Still’s orchestral works, of which there are great many.  The orchestra’s performance was brilliant and energetic, and I completely enjoyed hearing it.  I am so thrilled to have been able to attend this wonderful concert by the Camellia Symphony Orchestra – and I look forward to hearing more from this orchestra!

Here is The Camellia Symphony Orchestra’s Website

Here is a performance of Er-Gene Kahng (violin) playing Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with another orchestra: Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra Steven Byess, conductor.