Two American concertos featuring pianist Michelle Cann will kick off the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s 44th season this weekend at the Skyview Concert Hall. The program pairs George Gershwin’s ever-popular “Rhapsody in Blue” with Florence Price’s rediscovered “Concerto for Piano in One Movement.” They are guaranteed to draw concertgoers back to live performances, although livestreaming remains an option.
Cann has established a stellar reputation for her keyboard virtuosity. She teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she holds the Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies. She has been honored with the 2022 Sphinx Medal of Excellence and the 2022 Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award.
She has played “Rhapsody in Blue” many times and knows how to keep it fresh.
“When you play a piece like ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ that is so well known and loved, you want to make sure to bring out its energy and flavor,” Cann said. “It is one of the first examples of mixing American jazz and dance styles with a structure that is somewhat classical. As a performer, you want to honor jazz and classical but with a lot of freedom. I think that the best performances occur when performers add something that is a little unique of them. You have to capture the essence of the freedom of jazz in a written-out concerto.”
While Gershwin (1898-1937) needs no introduction, Price (1887-1953) does. She experienced some success in the 1930s. Her Symphony in E Minor, for example, was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933. It became the first symphony by an African American woman ever performed by a major symphony orchestra in the United States. But her music disappeared from the scene for many decades until 2009, when a large number of her works were discovered in an abandoned house that she had used during the summer months.
“I came across Price’s music in 2016,” Cann said. “She wrote the ‘Concerto in One Movement’ in the 1930s, and I couldn’t understand why I didn’t learn about her in my music history lessons. That concerto fits well with the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ because they are both shorter than most piano concertos. In her concerto, Price takes you on a terrific journey in about 18 minutes. She grew up in a time when her skin color and her gender worked against her. Publishing companies would not publish a lot of her music. She kept writing anyway, but it was a tragedy.”
Price grew up in Arkansas and studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, from which she graduated in 1906. Much of her writing took place in Chicago, where she was part of the Chicago Black Renaissance.
“When the ‘Concerto in One Movement’ starts, it sounds like something right out of Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky,” Cann said. “Price clearly had a love of the Romantic period, because she had a lot of references to that style in her writing. But at the same time, you will hear folk melodies, spirituals and dances mixed into it. So, her music has a very American sound, and that sound has its roots in our Black culture. She was really pulling from the music of her people. I don’t know of another composer who put all of these disconnected genres into one piece so masterfully.”
With the Catalyst Quartet, Cann recorded Price’s piano quintets. They were released earlier this year on the Azica Records label, and she has another recording of Price’s music underway.
For its season-opening concert, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will also perform Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 3. Tchaikovsky wrote four orchestral suites. The third of these, which he finished at the age of 44 in 1884, is the most popular. He wrote it while visiting the family estate in Kamenka, which is near Kyiv, Ukraine.
Like many of Tchaikovsky’s works, his Third Orchestral Suite flourishes with beautiful melodies and emotional surges. The piece has four movements and typically lasts about 50 minutes, which is longer than some full-fledged symphonic works.
The concert will begin with Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave Overture,” a tone poem that is also known as “the Hebrides Overture.” In 1829, Mendelssohn travelled to Scotland, where he visited Sir Walter Scott. He went to the remote island of Staffa and was so impressed by the huge cave that he wrote a stand-alone concert piece inspired by it. He finished it the next year, while traveling to Rome.
Salvador Brotons returns to Vancouver to conduct the concert. It will be the maestro’s 32nd season with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.