CU Symphony Orchestra

CU Symphony Orchestra

Nov 18, 2021

CU Symphony Orchestra

Led by Maestro Gary Lewis, the CU Symphony Orchestra will perform Antonín Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor—featuring student competition-winner Ethan Blake—as well as Florence Price's Symphony No. 1 in E minor.

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Performance date and time

Thursday, Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m. MST

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Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104; Price: Symphony No. 1, E minor

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Program notes

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia / September 8, 1841;
d. Prague, Bohemia / May 1, 1904

This greatest of all cello concertos was the final piece that Dvořák composed during his three-year term as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Inspiration flowed from several sources. One was the homesickness he had harbored since he left his beloved homeland. Another was the second cello concerto of Victor Herbert, whose premiere Dvořák attended in March 1894. Dvořák decided then and there to compose a cello concerto of his own (30 years earlier, he had left his first attempt at writing one unfinished). Still another inspiration was cellist Hanuš Wihan. Dvořák had composed three brief works for him, but what Wihan really wanted was a full-scale concerto. He offered to assist with the creation of the solo part. He proved too industrious an adviser, making more revisions and additions than the composer wanted.

Three decades before, Dvořák had been in love with Josephina Čermáková, an aspiring sixteen-year-old actress to whom he gave piano lessons. Even though she rejected his romantic advances, he retained a powerful affection for her. He ended up doing as Haydn and Mozart had done, and married his beloved’s sister instead. Perhaps he considered her the closest substitute he could find.

While he was composing the second movement of this concerto, a letter from Josephina revealed that she was gravely ill. In her honor, he quoted, in the middle section of this movement, the melody of Leave Me Alone in My Fond Dream, his song which was a particular favorite of hers. She died in May 1895, one month after he resettled in Europe. A few weeks later, he revised the final pages of the concerto’s finale to include a second quotation from the song, this time as a memorial tribute. The premiere took place in London on March 16, 1896, with the composer conducting and Leo Stern as soloist. Hanuš Wihan performed the concerto shortly thereafter.

The first theme of the opening movement—sombre, almost funerea—soon bursts forth into forceful expressiveness. Solo horn introduces the second theme. Dvořák said that it had cost him a great deal of effort, but that it moved him profoundly every time he heard it. Passing through much drama, the movement concludes with ringing fanfares. The slow second movement opens with a warm, tranquil theme introduced by the woodwinds. Dvořák gives the middle section a powerful launch, then takes up a soaring melody from Josephina’s favorite song. A quasi-cadenza for the soloist, with light accompaniment, precedes a return to the opening subject and a peaceful, contented coda. Strong contrasts characterize the finale, from the stern opening theme in march rhythm, through a wistful subject strongly inflected with the spirit of Czech folk music, to an expansive, elegiac reverie where themes from the previous movements reappear briefly. The concerto concludes on an exultant note. —Program Note by Don Anderson

Symphony No. 1, E minor

Florence Price (1887-1953)

b. Little Rock, AR / April 9, 1887; d. Chicago, IL / June 3, 1953

In 1935, African American writer and composer Shirley Graham could boast of the accomplishments of America’s first African American symphonists: William Grant Still, Florence B. Price and William Dawson. “Spirituals to Symphonies in less than fifty years! How could they even attempt it?” she asked in an article in which she recounts the development of African American art music from the triumphs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their concert spiritual arrangements in 1871 to the critical acclaim of Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, premiered by the Philadelphia Symphony under Leopold Stokowski in 1934. William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931 and Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933.

What was the impetus behind the creation of the first symphonies by African American composers? The spiritual inspiration came from the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an Anglo-African composer and concert violinist who visited this country three times between 1904 and 1910 and who had won fame as a conductor and composer in England. Keenly interested in African American folk music, Coleridge-Taylor wrote several compositions based loosely or directly on this source material including the well-known Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Transcribed for the Piano (1905) and Symphonic Variations on an African Air (1906, based on the spiritual “I’m troubled in mind”).

A more subtle but equally profound influence on African American composers came from the “American” works of the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorák who came to this country in 1892 to teach composition and to head the National Conservatory of Music in New York. During his three-year tenure here, the composer publicly advocated the use of African American and Native American folk music in composition to create a national American style. Dvorák heard African American spirituals sung to him by his student Harry T. Burleigh, who would become one of America’s most celebrated baritone soloists and composers. Dvorák ’s “American” works—the String Quartet, op. 96 and Quintet, Op. 97 and particularly the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall on December 15, 1893—provided inspiration for a generation of American composers.

Thus, two internationally respected composers (and not coincidentally, both European) validated, for both Black and white American composers, the beauty of African American folk music and led the way for its use in instrumental forms.

Nationalism was the backdrop from which African American composers in the 1920s and early 1930s adapted old artistic forms into self-consciously racial idioms. The affirmation of the values of the black cultural heritage had a decisive impact on Still, Price and Dawson, who had as their primary goal the incorporation of Negro folk idioms, that is, spirituals, blues and characteristic dance music in symphonic forms. In the orchestral music of these composers, the African American nationalist elements are integral to the style. The deceptively simple musical structure of their orchestral music is inherently bound to the folk tradition in which they are rooted.

Florence Beatrice Smith Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on April 9, 1887. After receiving her early music training from her mother, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1906 after three years of study, with a Soloist’s diploma in organ and a Teacher’s diploma in piano. There she studied composition with Wallace Goodrich and Frederick Converse and she studied privately with the eminent composer George W. Chadwick, the director of the Conservatory.

After completing her degree, Price returned south to teach music at the Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Academy in Cotton Plant, Arkansas (1906), Shorter College in North Little Rock, Arkansas (1907-1910) and Clark University in Atlanta (1910-1912). In 1927, now married and with two children, Price and her family moved to Chicago to escape the racial tension in the south which, by the late 1920s, had become intolerable. Here, Price established herself as a concert pianist, organist, teacher and composer.

Price’s Symphony in E minor was written in 1931. In a letter to a friend she wrote, “I found it possible to snatch a few precious days in the month of January in which to write undisturbed. But, oh dear me, when shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot!” The Symphony won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize in 1932, a national competition which brought her music to the attention of Frederick Stock, who conducted the Chicago Symphony in the world premiere performance of the work in June 15, 1933 at the Auditorium Theater. The Symphony won critical acclaim and marked the first symphony by an African American woman composer to be played by a major American orchestra.

Price based the first movement of her Symphony on two freely composed melodies reminiscent of the African American spiritual. The influence of Dvorák in the second theme is most evident. The second movement is based on a hymn-like melody and texture no doubt inspired by Price’s interest in church music. This such melody is played by a ten-part brass choir. The jovial third movement, entitled Juba Dance, is based on characteristic African American antebellum dance rhythms. For Price, the rhythmic element in African American music was of utmost importance. Referring to her Third Symphony (1940) which uses the Juba as the basis for a movement, she wrote “it seems to me to be no more impossible to conceive “of Negroid music devoid of the spiritualistic theme on the one hand than strongly syncopated rhythms of the juba on the other.” The Symphony closes with a tour de force presto movement based on an ascending and descending scale figure.

Price died in 1953 after receiving many accolades during her career. She wrote more than 300 compositions, including 20 orchestral works and over 100 art songs. Her music was in the repertoire of many important ensembles. In addition to the Chicago Symphony, these include the Michigan W. P. A. Symphony Orchestra, the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, the United States Marine Band, and several chamber groups. Still widely performed, Price’s songs were sung by many of the most renowned singers of her day including Marian Anderson for whom she wrote many of her art songs and spiritual arrangements, Ellabelle David, Etta Moten, Todd Duncan and Blanche Thebom.

Price is the first African-American woman composer to earn national recognition. A pioneer among women, she was much celebrated for her achievements in her time. With the resurgence of interest in her music, she is taking her place among those important composers of the 1930s and 1940s who helped to define America’s voice in music. Price’s music reflects the romantic nationalist style of the period but also the influence of her cultural heritage. Her music demonstrates that an African American composer could transform received musical forms, yet articulate a unique American and artistic self. —Program note by Rae Linda Brown


This event will be available both in-person and via livestream. We advise arriving early to secure a seat. Seating is general admission on a first-come-first-served basis.



Ethan Blake


Read Bio for Ethan Blake

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