Chamber Music Series Casts Revelatory Light On Black Composers

Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet in an empty Orchestra Hall at Chicago Symphony Center (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)

Chamber works by Black composers: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price; Beethoven Horn Sextet; Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Session Episodes 13 and 14; streaming on CSOtv.

DIGITAL REVIEW – As part of Black History month, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through its CSOtv network has embarked on a significant tribute to Black composers during February and March. The series gives voice to composers such as Joseph Bologne (perhaps better know as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Florence Price, and George Walker. The first thought that runs through your mind is: Why have these works been buried for so long? If you’ve been listening at all to the depth and breadth of representational imbalances brought to our attention by the Black Lives Matter movement, the question is rhetorical.

Still, you can’t help but consider why. And more disappointing, had these works been brought to our attention sooner, many of them would have by now been considered mainstream repertoire, shared by ensembles across the globe as standard fare.

Such is the case for Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet by Florence Price. The work was originally thought to have been composed as early as 1927, but the final manuscript dates circa 1951. It was not until 2015, when the manuscript was unearthed in the University of Arkansas Public Library by the Apollo Chamber Players, that the piece – transcribed and restored by its players – was performed. As one of only two string quartets composed by Price, the performance in CSO’s stellar digital series recalls the historical collaboration between the orchestra and the composer: In 1933, under music director Frederick Stock, the CSO performed Price’s Symphony No.1. The premiere marked the first performance of a work by a Black woman by a major U.S. orchestra.

Episode 13 in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra series features a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

For this Episode 14, first aired Feb. 25 and available through March 26, members of the CSO string section formed a string quartet to render the work in ebullient fashion. The cogent playing by the quartet – Gina DiBello and Sylvia Kim Kilcullen (violins), Catherine Brubaker (viola), and Katinka Kleijn (cello) – brought a freshness and vitality to a complex and rich score that elevates spirituals and folksongs of American and African American origins. When Dvořák evangelized that “spirituals are the basis of a new American school of music,” he had not heard Price’s work, but he would have relished this particular and poignant performance filmed in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center. Price’s string quartet is an exemplar of compositional fluidity. She weaves tongue-in-cheek American ballads such as “Clementine” and the strophic song “Drink to Me only with Thine Eyes” with spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with a grace that rings of Ravel’s string-quartet writing, bringing colors that shimmer and contrapuntal writing of distinct finesse.

In Episode 13 and also currently on demand through March 12, a second and equally remarkable subset of the CSO performed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet from 1895. You can’t help but remark how these symphonic musicians are really incognito chamber musicians par excellence. In the quintet, CSO principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson – teaming with concertmaster Robert Chen and Qing Hou (violins), Lawrence Neuman (viola), and Katinka Kleijn (cello) – illuminate another work that called on folk songs for inspiration. Wheras the Price engenders an intimacy, Coleridge-Taylor’s work sweeps us into a more symphonic world – a universe where you can clearly hear Coleridge-Taylor’s mentors Dvořák and Brahms swirling in his head. At the same time, Williamson’s poised clarinet draws us in with an invitational quality. This juxtaposition of the grandiosity of the piece and the tenderness of the playing has the effect of connecting with us despite the restrictions of our screen experience.

Virtuosity in a jaw-droppingly, and yet unassuming, way looms large through these concerts. Two CSO horn players, Oto Carrillo and David Gr++iffin, vanquished Beethoven’s Sextet for Two Horns and Strings in E-Flat Major. The two horn masters bring everything in abundance to Beethoven’s challenges: a delicacy of technique in its florid passages, sure intonation, and robust yet elegant tone.

A view from the top of Orchestra Hall of members of the Chicago Symphony performing Beethoven’s Sextet for Two Horns and Strings

In another dazzling moment, guest harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner collaborates with concertmaster Chen, principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, and fellow CSO musicians in J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Shuldiner’s shudderingly complex cadenza alone is worth the price of the $15 digital ticket.

Episode 13:

Episode 14:

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and The New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.