John Jeter / Fort Smith Symphony

Florence Beatrice Price: Symphonies No. 1 in E minor, No. 4 in D minor

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Lists of American music "firsts" often include Florence B. Price's 1933 Symphony No. 1 in E minor, which became the first symphony by an African American woman performed by a major American orchestra. Even that work is not so common these days. With echoes of Dvorák and William Grant Still, the work features a jovial "Juba Dance" in place of a scherzo. More interesting is the first movement, where African American influences -- syncopations, pentatonic scales -- seem to be struggling over the course of the substantial first movement to break out from the rather weighty material. But the highlight of this release from the Fort Smith Symphony of Arkansas and its conductor, John Jeter, is Price's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, composed in 1945 and here receiving its recorded world premiere. Despite the similar four-movement layout, with a juba dance in the same spot, it's a more complex work than its predecessor in every way, and its rediscovery is a major event. Sample the first movement with its subtle treatment of the spiritual "Wade in the Water." The slow movement makes reference to that of Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ("From the New World") and is all the more impressive for making an entirely distinct impression despite the similarities. The Fort Smith Symphony, from Price's home state (she and her husband fled after a horrifying lynching episode), delivers idiomatic performances, and the Symphony No. 4 finale is especially exciting. Highly recommended.

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