The CSO opens its 88th summer season at Ravinia with an an evening of all-American music

Pianist Michelle Cann makes her CSO debut

Pianist Michelle Cann makes her debut with the CSO at Ravinia

Titilayo Ayangade

Pianist Michelle Cann’s career was sailing along well enough, but when she began to play the music of long-overlooked composer Florence Price in 2016, it jumped into high gear. She now performs with top ensembles like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra.

If Price remains the composer for whom Cann is best known, the pianist regularly performs a cross-section of works from the standard repertory as well, like Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

“I do a lot of traditional concertos,” she said, “but it’s also sprinkled with what is very popular — the Florence Price concerto, because I’ve kind of championed that and I still get a lot of requests for that.”

When Cann makes her Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Ravinia Festival debuts on July 12, she will perform another famed piece with which is closely associated — George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The concert, with Marin Alsop, Ravina’s chief conductor, on the podium, will open the orchestra’s 88th summer residency at the venerable Highland Park amphitheater and campus.  

Cann has been playing the Rhapsody a great deal this year, including performances July 5 and 6 at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, because 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of this jazz-tinged American classic.

According to Cann, who teaches at both the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and Manhattan School of Music in New York, there are three main career trajectories for piano soloists.

Some are child prodigies like Russian-born pianist Evgeny Kissin, who recorded Chopin’s two piano concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic when he was 12. Others win major competitions such as Van Cliburn who gained worldwide fame after taking the top prize at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

And still others gain recognition by being linked to a composer, movement or musical work, like John Browning’s long association with Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto. “That is what I would say is my situation,” Cann said.

“I do a lot of traditional concertos,” she said, “but it’s also sprinkled with what is very popular — the Florence Price concerto, because I’ve kind of championed that and I still get a lot of requests for that.”

The pianist, who grew up Florida and earned her artist’s diploma at Curtis, where she studied with famed collaborative pianist Robert McDonald, had a conventional early career. But in 2016, she was invited to perform the New York premiere of Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934) with The Dream Unfinished orchestra and was immediately smitten with the music.

Price, a Black composer who moved to Chicago in the late 1920s after a breakout of racial violence in her native Little Rock, Arkansas, gained considerable fame in the 1930s and ´40s. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony No. 1 in E minor, the first composition by an African-American woman to be presented by a major orchestra.

Despite the composer’s many notable achievements, Price’s music was soon all but forgotten after her death in 1953 at age 66 because of changing musical tastes and, there is little doubt, prejudices surrounding her gender and race.

At first, Cann performed Price’s Concerto in One Movement with a few lower-level orchestras here and there. Then, in 2018, Alex Ross wrote an influential piece in The New Yorker titled New World: The Rediscovery of Florence Price, and major artists and orchestras began taking notice.

Florence Price

In conjunction with its 2020–21 WomenNOW series, the Philadelphia Orchestra put a spotlight on Price. Cann had just been hired by Curtis in 2020 (her duties began the following year), and the orchestra’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, learned of her ties to the composer and asked her to serve as a soloist for a performance of Price’s piano concerto. “You just never know what life will bring,” she said.   

Because of the COVID-19 shutdown, the collaboration was recorded for a monthlong digital streaming presentation, which brought the project considerably wider visibility than it might have enjoyed as a single live performance. “Suddenly, and that is what it was,” she said, “my career took off. People were so interested in her but also me as a pianist, because obviously my interpretation is part of it.”

Soon, Cann received invitations from top orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to perform the Price concerto, and she has been asked back since to serve as a soloist for other works. “Getting one chance is great,” Cann said, “but the way to have a career is people want you back. It’s getting re-invited. She [Price] was my in, and then people paid attention, and it went from there.”

Price wrote two piano concertos beyond the Concerto in One Movement, but the manuscripts for both of those works are lost. But there remains some hope they still might be found, a prospect that captivates Cann.

In a 2022 interview with Experience CSO, Michael Cooper, professor of music at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, pointed to recent rediscoveries of Price’s music like her previously unknown orchestral choral work, Song of Hope (1930).

Cooper’s inventory of her compositions stood at 465 in 2022, and he believes more will be added to the list as additional works are uncovered in American and European caches. “I don’t currently see it getting past 500,” he said, “but I may be wrong.”

In addition to her devotion to Price and her performances of more conventional piano repertory, Cann is also venturing into contemporary music. Valerie Coleman, Performance Today’s 2020 Classical Woman of the year, is writing a concerto for her that is tentatively scheduled to be premiered in the next year or two by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Although the Price concerto is “new” in the sense that it has been rediscovered, the pianist said, this work will be unequivocally new. “That’s an interest of mine,” she said.