Civitas Ensemble provides a showcase for an unsung work by Florence Price

Florence Price wrote many works for small ensembles, including her Piano Quintet in A Minor.

Seventy years after her death, Florence Price continues to experience a renaissance, with her works performed worldwide after decades of neglect. During her life, she wrote more than 300 compositions, including four symphonies, four concertos and countless chamber works.

One of the latter, Price’s Piano Quintet in A Minor, will receive its first Orchestra Hall performance Nov. 14, when the Civitas Ensemble leads off its CSO Chamber Music program with the work. (Members of Civitas are  Yuan-Qing Yu, CSO associate concertmaster; CSO violin Simon Michal; CSO viola Weijing Michal; Kenneth Olsen, CSO assistant principal cello, and pianist Winston Choi.)

Born in Arkansas, Price (1887-1953) spent much of her life in Chicago, where she became the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra; Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor in 1933.

The Catalyst Quartet, which has launched a series of recordings commemorating historically important Black composers, features the Piano Quintet in A Minor on “Uncovered, Vol. 2: Florence B. Price” (Azica, 2022). (CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery was a Catalyst member from 2012 to 2020.) “She just wanted a chance, and she never really got it,” Catalyst violist Paul Laraia said about Price in an interview with the site Classical Communiqué.  “It's so fulfilling that we were able to release all of this chamber music.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, is another champion of Price’s works. “Besides the symphonies, I’ve conducted the Piano Concerto, and now I’m learning the Piano Sonata, and then there’s the Piano Quintet,” he said in a 2022 nterview with Gramophone magazine. “Everything I know by Price, I find fascinating, beautiful and absolutely worth all the attention her music is finally starting to have.”

Members of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas performed Price’s Piano Quintet in a 2021 virtual concert, billed as the work’s premiere recording, at the Great Hall of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It is available for viewing at sonamusic.org (and embedded below).

“Florence Price’s astounding work is exciting enough, but the fact that her music has been unjustly ignored through all these years adds to the urgency of getting this piece out and into the ears of music lovers everywhere,” said Paul Haas, music director of Symphony of Northwest Arkansas. “I’m so proud, both of our musicians’ incredible playing, and of SoNA itself for helping bring attention to this astonishingly gifted composer.

The SoNA quintet consists of Tomoko Kashiwagi, acting principal pianist; Zsolt Eder, associate concertmaster; Miho Oda Sakon, principal second violin; Jesse Collett, principal violist, and Kari Caldwell, principal cello.

“It’s such an honor to bring music that has been lost or forgotten back to life,” said Kashiwagi in an interview with the site Free Weekly. “There are challenges, because there are not many resources readily available. We spent a lot of time discussing and trying to figure out Price’s intentions from the score during the rehearsals. 

“The Piano Quintet in A Minor is full of gorgeous melodies, excitement and charm,” Kashiwagi added. “Listeners can sit back and just enjoy the mastery of Florence Price’s composition. I hope that this performance brings even more awareness of her music to the concert planners, performers and audiences.”