Photo courtesy of the Curtis Institute of Music
Story by Kyle MacMillan
After Florence Price died in 1953, the Black composer faded into obscurity in large part because of prejudices surrounding her race and gender. But in the last decade or so, her works have experienced a meteoric renaissance that has few precedents in classical-music history.
“I’m amazed but I’m not surprised that she has caught on like wildfire,” said pianist Michelle Cann, who will appear July 20 and 21, 2023 at the Colorado Music Festival. “A great story is one thing, and she definitely has a great story, but she wouldn’t survive if it were just a great story. This is timeless music. It’s very distinctly American. As much as she brings influences of the past, she mixes it in with these dances, spirituals, and so many other things that are very Black American as well.”
Cann has helped Price’s resurgence by championing her music, and the pianist’s career in turn has been boosted by her association with the skyrocketing Price. She was introduced to the composer’s music in 2016 when she was asked to perform the New York premiere of Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934) with The Dream Unfinished Orchestra.
“I had never heard her name or anything about her before,” she said, “I think if I were just a lay person, that’s a little more understandable, but I actually found it to be really disappointing that throughout all my studies, she wasn’t presented to me. I knew this was really a big problem if those of us in this field don’t even know her.”
Cann will join the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra and Music Director Emeritus Michael Christie as soloist for Price’s concerto, which, despite its name, actually has three movements that flow into each other without interruption.
Because the work only runs about 18 minutes, about half the length of a typical concerto, Cann and the orchestra will pair it with another short work – Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-31). “So, when it’s so short there’s room to expand, and that’s what is fun about it,” Cann said, “because you get two concertos on one concert,” she said. “You don’t usually get that.”
Not only were the two concertos written within a few years of each other, Cann said, they share other characteristics as well. Price includes French colors and harmonies in the second section of her work, and the first movement of Ravel’s concerto incorporates elements of jazz and blues. “It actually really works,” the pianist said of the combination. “Two composers who really pulled from these American styles in the same concert I think will be very fun and exciting for the audience.”
Cann was born in North Carolina and moved with her family to Avon Park, Fla., a town of about 11,000 people in the central part of the state, when she was 6. Her father was music teacher and conductor in the local schools, and her parents made sure that each of their four children took piano lessons, which she began about the same time they arrived in Florida.
The youngster eagerly sought to emulate her oldest sister, who was a good piano student. “I had her to look up to,” she said. “I was a typical little sister wanting to be like your big sister. I think I wanted to catch up to her in a certain way.”
When Cann began showing promise on the piano, her parents found her a new teacher – Rita Fandrich, a longtime faculty member at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. She later took more lessons in Tampa and played violin, her other instrument, in the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra in Orlando.
She went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she joined the piano faculty in 2021, serving as the inaugural Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies.
Cann typically teaches on Mondays, Tuesdays, and sometimes Wednesdays, and then heads off for concerts, primarily concerto appearances but also chamber music and solo recitals. “That’s the way I balance my time, but it’s certainly intense,” she said. “I definitely don’t have a 9-to-5, two-days-off-a-week job. Definitely not.” Her 2022-23 season has included appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, and National Symphony in Washington, D.C.
After first performing Price’s Concerto in One Movement, Cann was determined to learn more about the composer, who fled her hometown of Little Rock, Ark, because of racial strife and moved to Chicago in the late 1920s. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the composer’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor, the first composition by an African-American woman to be presented by a major orchestra.
Cann has gone on to perform other Price works as well. “I just couldn’t get enough. I love her writing style,” she said. As part of the Catalyst Quartet’s Uncovered recording series, she joined the ensemble for a 2022 album that includes the composer’s two piano quintets, and she recently released a solo recording with Price’s Piano Sonata and three of four of the composer’s Fantasies nègres. (The fourth is lost.)
“It was very exciting to see where this started,” she said, “and where it is now and where I want to continue to go, which is to keep promoting and bringing awareness to other composers even beyond Florence Price.”