Walwyn provides superb advocacy for Florence Price’s piano music

By Lawrence Budmen

Pianist Karen Walwyn performed music of Florence Price Friday night at Wertheim Concert Hall.

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a pioneering African-American composer. In 1933, she became the first black female composer to have a work played by a major large ensemble when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fredrick Stock performed her Symphony No. 1. 

Although she wrote several hundred scores, her works were largely forgotten after her death until, in 2009, over a hundred manuscripts were discovered in the long abandoned house where she had lived in St. Anne, Illinois. That has led to the rediscovery and revival of Price’s compositions. 

Pianist Karen Walwyn devoted most of her ninety-minute recital on Friday night at the Wertheim Concert Hall to Price’s keyboard scores. Part of the FIU Music Festival, this fascinating concert was exactly the kind of programming an academic-based festival should present.

Price studied at the New England Conservatory. In many ways, her style is congruent with the pre-Copland Americana of her teacher George Whitefield Chadwick, embellished by a strongly personal voice. Echoes of her heritage and nineteenth-century romantic gestures are woven into her scores.

Walwyn served as an engaging narrator, providing important insight into Price’s life and her music’s underpinnings. She opened the concert with the four-movement suite In the Land O’Cotton. These miniatures are beautifully crafted salon pieces. Only sudden modulations to a minor key suggest the title’s connection to slavery. Touches of chromaticism provide surprise amid the songful melodic paths of “Dreaming” and “Song Without Words.” A fleet “Dance” suggests the juba rhythms of slave dances.

Walwyn, coordinator of keyboard studies at Howard University and the first African-American winner of the Steinway Artist Award, displayed real flair for Price’s distinctive idiom. A touch of ragtime enlivened Arkansas Jitter, played with buoyant verve. Child Asleep is an exquisitely conceived lullaby for Price’s daughter.

The Sonata in E minor is a more ambitious work. Walwyn’s strong technique was on full display in the opening movement as she drew a large, deep sonority from the Steinway. The spacious, eloquent melody of the Andante is interwoven with references to the pianistic tradition of Brahms and Chopin. Rapid Lisztian figurations with an acerbic edge dominate the final Scherzo-Allegro. Walwyn blazed through the keyboard spanning runs of the final pages.

Walwyn told the audience that her research and advocacy for Price’s music had inspired her own compositions. She concluded the program with “A Journey from Afar,” the opening movement of Mother Emanuel: Charleston. 

Walwyn’s suite is her creative response to the killing of nine people in June, 2015 by a racist gunman at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. Her opening movement portrays the voyage of slave ships, the horrors of slavery and struggle for freedom and the building of the first black church in the south. Constant dissonance sets the grim historical scene. There is rumbling bass and dark, churning motifs throughout this virtuosic excerpt. 

Walwyn gave a tensely controlled, energetic account of her score which left this listener wanting to hear the remainder of her creation. She received a standing, cheering ovation from the attentive listeners.

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Sat Nov 13, 2021
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