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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: May 6, 2019

Portland String Quartet turns its focus on an overlooked composer

Written by: Bob Keyes

 

Florence Price was the first African-American female composer to have a symphony performed by a major U.S. orchestra. The Portland String Quartet features her music on Sunday. Photo Courtesy of Portland String Quartet

 

Florence Price was the first African-American female composer of note to gain national attention and the first to have a symphony performed by a major U.S. orchestra. Marian Anderson, one of the great singers of her time, regularly performed Price’s spiritual arrangements.

She died in 1953 and quickly began drifting from America’s cultural consciousness. In addition to being black and female, she was forgotten because few recordings of her music survived. But in 2009, dozens of her scores were found in an abandoned house in Illinois.

From left, Dean Stein, Ronald Lantz, Julia Adams and Andrew Mark. Photo by Linwood Leland, courtesy of Portland String Quartet

On Sunday, the Portland String Quartet features Price’s music as part of its 50th anniversary season. In a concert that includes music by Beethoven and Brahms, the most interesting composer on the program may be Price. The quartet will perform “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint,” a technically challenging piece that employs the familiar American melodies “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Shortenin’ Bread,” “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” and others.

Dean Stein, violinst in the quartet, said the ensemble was attracted to Price’s life and music. The quartet has always championed the music of American composers and paid close attention to African-American composers in particular. In June, it will perform the music of another African-American composer, George Walker, at the Maine Festival of American Music at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village.

Price’s “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint” has become a part of the quartet’s regular repertoire in the past year or so, and Sunday’s performance will be its Portland premiere.

“I think there’s a feeling, why only in February,” Stein said, explaining the quartet’s committment to playing the music of African-American composers throughout the year and not only during Black History Month. “If we believe in a piece and if we believe a piece is worthy of being heard and deserves representation, then it’s in our repertoire and we will perform it regularly.”

There’s also a personal connection. Price was born in Arkansas in 1887 and came to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory. There, she encountered George Chadwick, whose string quartets the PSQ has recorded five times.

The more they learned about Price, the more they admired her. She was a good composer who overcame obstacles faced by few others. “Everything in her life had to be framed against this uphill battle that she had to make, not only as a woman, but as a woman of color. It demands a response. It demands acknowledgment.”

Members of the quartet felt similarly about Walker, whose music they will perform in June. They were not familiar with him until they learned of his death at age 96 last August. Among the things they learned, Walker was the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. “Reading the obituary, we had been smacked over the head,” Stein said. “Here was this great composer right in our midst and we didn’t know. You have to face that and say, ‘Now I know. What do I do?’ ”

You play his music.

 

Portland String Quartet

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St., Portland
TICKETS & INFO: $22, $20 seniors, free 21 and younger; portlandstringquartet.com
PROGRAM: Beethoven, Quartet, Op.18, No.5; Florence Price, “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint”; Brahms, Piano Quintet; with guest pianist Laura Kargul

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