In 1943, Florence Price sent two letters to then-Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky in hopes that he might choose to program her music. No evidence exists that he ever replied. More than 75 years later, the African-American composer finally had a moment in the light at Symphony Hall. For his subscription series debut Saturday evening, BSO youth and family concerts conductor Thomas Wilkins — the organization’s first black conductor — devised a program, featuring Price and other minority composers, that rocked the hall.
Arkansas-born Price was the first black woman to have a piece performed by a major American symphony orchestra, and recent years have seen an upsurge of interest in her life and work. Price’s BSO debut came via a shortened version of her Symphony No. 3, created by Wilkins and titled “Symphonic Reflections.” The BSO’s reading of the piece was vivid and powerful with an unshakeable sense of gentility. Introducing the second movement, Keisuke Wakao spun out a pentatonic oboe solo; the five-note scale — often found in traditional musics of the world including Negro spirituals, of which Price made many arrangements — sighed through the rest of the dulcet slow movement and danced through the final scherzo. The orchestra’s expressivity combined with Wilkins’s knowledge of the work dissolved any fear of it sounding like a relic. Enthusiastic applause filled the hall at each movement break.
Price wasn’t the program’s only composer whose work was being performed for the first time by the BSO; Virginia composer Adolphus Hailstork’s harmonically refulgent “An American Port of Call” was a satisfying listen that splashed polytonal abstract images all over the stage. (The composer was present and took a bow.) Duke Ellington’s “A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Harlem Suite),” orchestrated by Luther Henderson, took a swinging trip through the neighborhood, passing by boogie-woogie horns and a clarinet slinking alongside a beckoning trombone. Wilkins let his baton rest during the killer percussion feature near the end; the section had it down pat.
Saxophone shredder James Carter also made his BSO debut with Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra’s big, beautiful Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra, a piece written for him. He growled and lunged through turbo-boosted solos, playing the shimmering diva in the moonlit second movement and clowning through an improvised solo that ended with a prolonged high note, spurring whoops and cheers from the audience. It seemed he was determined to pulverize any still-extant dichotomies between art and entertainment. Out of his tenor and soprano saxes blasted James Brown-esque howls, lion roars, and plosive pops of sound that sounded more like a surf guitar than it seemed a saxophone should. Following his first solo bow, he exited the stage with a joyously irreverent honk. The audience demanded an encore, and he laid down a blistering and free “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” A crowd of black concertgoers stood up, hands on hearts, and sang along.
Alas, this program only got one night of airtime in contrast to the three or four performances typical for Symphony Hall BSO concerts. (If you missed it, WCRB is rebroadcasting it April 1.) In an earlier interview with the Globe, Wilkins emphasized that the single concert was not a one-off event but “in fact, a launch,” with his goal being the welcoming into the canon composers who have till now been shuffled to the side. In her recent book “Emergent Strategy,” black feminist adrienne maree brown posits that imagining a better world requires having not one good idea, but “ideas that come from, and work for, more people.” A concert like this feels like a welcome step in that direction.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Saturday, March 23
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.