Florence Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4: John Jeter, Fort Smith Symphony (Naxos)
"It was just a lot of fun to do this project. Even though we had these long sessions, they were fired up and kept the energy going for quite a long time."
John Jeter is the music director of the Fort Smith Symphony, the oldest symphony in the state of Arkansas. Over the past 22 years, he and his ensemble have released four commercial recordings. Their newest recording celebrates the symphonic music of Florence Beatrice Price, who was born in Little Rock in 1887.
"We had a wonderful experience recording all of the symphonies of William Grant Still, who was the first African-American male symphonic composer to be recognized as such, and still was — he's really an adopted composer of Arkansas — he was born in Mississippi, but he was raised in Arkansas. So, it seemed only fitting that we would move to the first recognized African-American female composer who was actually born and raised in Arkansas."
Florence Price had a pretty remarkable career. Could you talk a little bit about what made her so significant?
"I think what makes her so interesting is throughout her career, her compositions are always so honest. They're so genuine. There's no pretentiousness in anything. And I think that the response to her music has been really great. So at the end of the day, it's the quality of composition, I think, that really stands out for her.
"And then of course there was a competition for new music that she won, and the prize was having her first symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony, which was a huge deal. And that was really her first big recognition, and historically that's one of the reasons for where she is — she had that first opportunity for a woman of color to have a major orchestra perform a piece of hers.
"The third movement is perhaps the most specific or most characteristic of Price. And in her case, she writes a Juba dance, which is an African slave dance. It's sort of related to the hambone, which is a dance with music performed with body percussion. So, it's sort of a quirky dance idea. Very happy, very upbeat — a fun, almost funny sort of movement."
It's interesting she included a Juba dance in both her first and fourth symphonies. Do you think that is significant as well?
"Oh! I think that's one of her main signatures of this is an American symphony. I'm going to get rid of that serious scherzo, and I'm going to have some fun. They're supposed to be dances that put a smile on your face and take you away from that Austrian-Germanic experience. This is an American experience. There's a slide whistle in the Juba dance in the first symphony. I mean, symphonic slide whistle — how often do you hear that? People are supposed to listen to that and go, 'What?'"
In the fourth symphony, one of the things I love is the recurring melody of the spiritual, "Wade in the Water."
"Yeah, the first movement, almost from the beginning. And there you go. There is a perfect example. I'm sure she was thinking, 'How can I, what's going to be my reference for the symphony? How can I tie this into America's past?' And yeah, she does a masterful job.
"I hope that people will not only enjoy this recording, but I hope that it helps that dialogue that we have more and more about, 'Maybe we can expand the repertoire a little bit,' because I can tell you my experience with Price and William Grant Still is the audience absolutely loves the music."
To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.