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The Price of Equity, Part 1
Florence Price was a Good, Not Great, Composer. We Should Not Be Expected to Pretend Differently
Over the last year, orchestra audiences all over America have been introduced to the clever but mundane music of an early 20th century Arkansan composer whose name they had never heard before: Florence Price. During the 2021-22 and 2022-23 concert seasons, every one of the country’s seven major orchestras aside from the Boston Symphony has programmed at least one of Price’s works. Several American orchestras have devoted entire concerts to exploring her oeuvre.
No ensemble has backed Price more volubly than the storied Philadelphia Orchestra, which, during the calendar year 2021, programmed her music on no fewer than six distinct concert programs (more programs over that span than Brahms or Mahler). Meanwhile, the Orchestra embarked on the project of recording all three of Price’s extant symphonies for the Deutsche Grammophon label (one of many recent Price recording initiatives by classical artists nationwide). One disc of the Philadelphia Price cycle received the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance last week.
In the midst of making these recordings, the orchestra’s Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin—whose simultaneous titles as music director of the Metropolitan Opera and artistic director of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain qualify him as the most influential conductor in America, if not the world—spoke to the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Price project. Explaining that he aimed to elevate Price to her rightful place in the standard repertoire, he said that Price’s music is “like listening to Brahms, but [with] true American flavor.” He added: “It should become like ‘Oh, we’re playing the Florence Price [Symphony No.] 1,’ like Dvorak’s 9th or Brahms 1.”
Longtime Fort Worth Symphony music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya agreed, claiming that Price “absolutely deserves to be part of the canon.” Orchestras all over America have followed their lead over the last two years, with ensembles as diverse as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and the Michigan State University Symphony all programming her music on concerts bearing the title “American Masters” or “American Classics.”
Neither has this phenomenon been limited to the orchestra world. The chamber music organization Groupmuse San Francisco, in collaboration with San Francisco Performances, sent out the following rhapsodic email blast advertising a concert of Price’s music last week:
Florence Price was a titanic musical talent and a soulful visionary. She was also an African American woman in the first half of the 20th century, so however great her work, she was always creating at the margins. The world has grown a great deal since she passed, we're coming to appreciate all the genius that’s been burning at the margins for too long. At long last, Florence Price is coming center stage.
Even the Qatar-based news organization Al-Jazeera has gotten into the act, publishing an article entitled “Florence Price: The story of America’s forgotten musical genius.”
All this for a composer who, though deceased since 1953, was barely played at all until two years ago. As of 2018, her Third Symphony, today hailed in program books everywhere as her masterpiece, existed in only two recordings: a live performance by the undergraduate Yale Symphony Orchestra available on YouTube, and a disc by Apo Hsu and the Women’s Philharmonic (an organization founded to play the music of forgotten female composers).
The Phoenix-like rise of Florence Price’s reputation over the last three years is unprecedented. There might be no instance in the 250-year-or-so history of the classical music canon in which a long-deceased composer has burst onto the orchestra scene as suddenly and as ubiquitously as Florence Price.
Needless to say, there have been instances in which lost works of canonic composers, discovered long after their deaths, have been quickly enshrined among the timeless masterpieces. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of living composers exploding onto the scene on the strength of their groundbreaking new works.
But Price’s exhumation and rising genius cult make little sense on the merits of her music alone. A large part of her oeuvre has been available since her death (including two of her symphonies and her piano concertos), with a cache of additional scores discovered 12 years ago, and quickly prepared for publication. Recordings of her orchestral music by niche ensembles like the Women’s Philharmonic and New Black Music Repertory Ensemble have also long been available.
For decades, orchestras nationwide have been searching for ways to elevate diverse (particularly black and female) composers, and yet they have by-and-large taken a pass on Price until very recently. And even today, in the throes of Price fever, there is barely an orchestra player or conductor I’ve spoken with on the subject who has not judged her music—sotto voce—to be “fine but not great.” As the audiences that have emerged from her concerts over the last couple years with charmed puzzlement on their faces may have guessed, the Florence Price phenomenon is not an artistic one. Rather, it hails from the realm of politics.
The Politics of Orchestra Equity
In 2020, the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement led organizations across the country, regardless of industry, to scour their past and present for evidence of “institutional racism.” In June 2020, a statement from the League of American Orchestras, shot-caller for the American orchestra industry, showed that orchestras would be no exception. “We recognize,” the League wrote, “that for decades, in our role as a national association and voice for orchestras, we have tolerated and perpetuated systemic discrimination against Black people, discrimination mirrored in the practices of orchestras and throughout our country. . . . There is a gap between our espoused desire to serve communities and our readiness to confront racism. Closing that gap must be our work going forward.”
The League was as good as its word. It greatly increased its resource allocation toward “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” (EDI) initiatives, and began using its conferences, magazines, and consulting services to implement its new priorities at orchestras around the country. These initiatives ranged from generic programs familiar to the disciples of Robin DiAngelo or Ibram X. Kendi (e.g., hosting a 4-hour online webinar last month for orchestra administrators entitled “A Short History of Structural Racism,” taught by Ayo Magwood of an outfit called Uprooting Inequity LLC) to efforts to change the race and gender makeup of classical performers on America’s stages.
These latter efforts have taken a variety of forms: from publicly-announced investments in organizations designed to promote artists of color (e.g., the Sphinx Organization or the Gateways Music Festival), to earmarked fellowships for conductors or players of desirable races or genders, to proposals to end blind orchestra auditions on the grounds that they result in too few minority orchestra hires (this last proposal was, incredibly, endorsed by chief music critic Tony Tomassini on the pages of the New York Times). But perhaps most prominently, orchestras have used repertoire and programming as tools to absolve themselves of perceived racial sin.
Orchestras around the country have commissioned minority composers in record numbers over the last two years. And meanwhile, the few major works commissioned from black composers prior to 2020 have become hotter commodities than their composers or original commissioners might have ever imagined. Terence Blanchard’s opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, for instance, commissioned by the Saint Louis Opera and first performed there in 2019, became the first opera by a black American ever performed at the Met in 2021. Within a year, it would also be performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Los Angeles Opera.
The arrival of Blanchard, a distinguished jazz trumpeter, on the Met stage, was emblematic of a new drive to collaborate with artists in non-classical genres that contained more black musicians. The San Francisco Symphony exhibited the same tendency in its hire of jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding—who has co-written an opera with legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter—as “collaborative partner.” The small (but growing) number of traditionally classical composers from minority backgrounds—names like Mohammed Fairouz, Tyshawn Sorey, Gabriela Ortíz, and Michael Abels—have likely received enough commission inquiries over the last two years to occupy them for several lifetimes.
In line with the data fetishism of our era, orchestras’ “progress” toward achieving “representation” in programming is being measured. Last year, Tom Jacobs of the San Francisco Classical Voice provided a status update: “For the 2015–2016, 2016–2017 and 2017–2018 seasons, the numbers were quite static. On average, 2% of works performed were written by women, and 3% by composers of color. By 2019–2020, those numbers had inched upward, with 6% of works by women and 8% by composers of color. For the upcoming season, this slow-moving climb suddenly turned into a sprint. Works scheduled for performance by women comprise 12%, and nearly 17% are by composers of color.” Jacobs went on to single out the Los Angeles Philharmonic for special commendation for its combined female and of-color total of 41% for the 2021-22 season.
Jacobs did not pull these numbers out of the air or assemble them by carefully scouring orchestra websites. They were conveniently collated for him by an organization called the Institute for Composer Diversity, which calculates both racial and gender statistics for programming at all American orchestras, allowing critics like Jacobs (or perhaps the League itself) to use its conveniently packaged data to encourage orchestras to do the right thing. Watching over their shoulders are groups like the Sphinx Organization, which demanded in 2020 that American orchestras program at least 20% works by “Black or Latinx” composers.
Recognizing the mounting influence of efforts like the Institute for Composer Diversity leads us to one explanation for the sudden, improbable ascendancy of Florence Price. As a black woman, Price puts a checkmark in both boxes, allowing orchestras to claim double credit when they present their social justice credentials to apply for grants or seek media coverage. This explanation makes particular sense when we consider the outsized attention Price has received recently relative to other, more talented contemporaries who were black males (e.g., William Grant Still), or white females (e.g., Amy Beach).
(Scholars of wokeness might see in this an echo of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of “Intersectionality,” which posits that disadvantages can be layered one-upon-the-other to achieve heightened states of oppression. An article in the League’s Symphony Magazine boosting Price due to the “two-tiered prejudice” she experienced, suggests that the concept is not far from orchestra administrators’ minds.)
But being black and a woman have not been, by themselves, sufficient to elevate Price to her current exalted status. Other black female composers have written for orchestra—Valerie Coleman and Jesse Montgomery, to name two. But, virtually every black female orchestra composer not named Florence Price is working today.
Orchestra administrators know that audiences are old-fashioned. Audiences are not averse to new music, but they don’t want to hear it all the time, or even most of the time. Classical audiences today are just as keen on Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky (and music that sounds like Beethoven, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky) as they have ever been. Florence Price, due in no small part to her own extraordinary determination and some compositional talent (more on that in Part 2), stands virtually alone as a successful black female classical composer writing in the conservative romantic idiom that orchestra audiences love. She doesn’t rock the boat. In that, she has truly become the classical music world’s indispensable woman.
The Perceived Costs of Inaction
What do orchestras see as the stakes of failing to incorporate composers like Price into the canon? Well, for one thing, there is the risk of being publicly shamed by increasingly deep-pocketed music diversity watchdogs like the Sphinx Organization. Such shaming can jeopardize relationships with progressive city or state government arts organizations, inspire negative media coverage, and upset donors.
But many orchestra administrators have a deeper fear: audience ossification. They reason that as their largely white audiences age and national demographics change, they need to do more to attract minority audiences to concerts (so far, so indisputable). But then, they make the following logical leap that former Oakland Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan (may he rest in peace) made in the pages of Symphony two years ago: “Orchestras are looking to diversity, not because of altruism, but because they have to. You have to work at it constantly. Programming is part of survival. Your Martin Luther King concert does not solve the problem, nor does your Cinco de Mayo concert.”
Morgan’s typically elegant phrasing evinces the assumption that if disadvantaged American minorities hear more music written by composers who look like them, they will come streaming into the concert halls and become subscribers, thereby securing the financial futures of struggling American orchestras. And in order for that to happen, orchestras must first stop exoticizing underrepresented composers and pigeonholing them in diversity-themed concerts. They must instead program the music of composers like Price alongside Beethoven and Mozart (and just as frequently) with no further comment.
The idea that “diverse composers = diverse audiences” fits perfectly into the identity politics zeitgeist of our times, but it’s totally untested and unproven. It’s especially untested when it results in the selection of lesser music on the basis of race or gender. But in spite of the dubiousness of the diverse composers = diverse audiences assumption, it is—which I can say based on personal experience—simply taken on faith in orchestra front offices across the country.
Implementing the diverse composers = diverse audiences paradigm requires orchestras to change the canon—to write an alternative history in which the few minority composers who were given the opportunity to formally study composition prior to 1950 all turned out to be towering geniuses.
Florence Price has been recruited by the music administrative class to anchor this alternative history. The trouble is that the quality of her music, while good, simply does not come close to supporting the massive sociopolitical edifice being erected on top of it. This is a particular tragedy because Price was, truly, a talented musician and a remarkable person. Over the long term, her pathbreaking legacy is unlikely to benefit from the overstatement of her talents.
Part 2 (to be released this Friday April 15) will explore Price’s life and critically evaluate some of her most oft-played works.
Part 3 (to be released a week later) will examine the critical response to Price and the consequences of her genius cult.