In 1933 composer Florence Price became the first African American woman to have her composition premiered by a major American orchestra, the Chicago Symphony. Highly respected during her career, Price's name and music became increasingly obscure over time.
That began to change last year when a recording of two long-lost Price concertos was released. The violinist featured on the CD is Er-Gene Kahng, who has devoted a great deal of study to Price's life and legacy.
Here’s how Kahng describes Price's distinctly American musical style.
“She thought about ways in which to bring her own sense of religiousness and her southern roots into this classical European style," Kahng says. "She incorporates, I would say, these jazz elements. And what is more American, in a way, than jazz?”
Kahng will perform Price's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Camellia Symphony in Sacramento on Feb. 16.
“The second theme is still my favorite to play, I never tire of it," she says. "It’s so lush and earnest in its emotions. And I think she really hits the mark on creating this earnestness where she also just displays herself in full expression.”
An Arkansas native born in 1887, Price grew up with and became a contemporary of William Grant Still, who is often referred to as the dean of African-American classical composers.
“To realize that they were in fact classmates in Little Rock, their families knew each other, one figure sort of is catapulted to history, one is completely forgotten, [it] really points to the exclusivity that we assign to our own history,” notes Kahng.
By performing and recording the works of Price, Kahng is drawing attention not just to the music and composer. She says she has a moral imperative to address societal issues.
“The legacy of our troubled history in the South, how much of that is still present today?" she says. "Jim Crow of course existed up until 55 years ago. When we really start putting her legacy into a larger historical context, it brings to the fore larger questions and ways in which classical music can directly address these questions."
Kahng says her focus on Price has affected her deeply as a classical musician, creating what she calls a sort of “paradigm shift.”
“I find myself being kind of in a way obsessed with not only her life but the landscape of modern classical music in America today," she says. "And this social cause is something that I find myself forever changed by, and I do find myself bringing it into the performance."
Violinist Er-Gene Kahng will perform Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Camellia Symphony, under the direction of Christian Baldini, Saturday, Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the McClatchy High School Auditorium.