Review: A river runs through it

Classical Music Critic

June 14, 1933, was a barrier-breaking day: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by Frederick Stock, premiered Symphony in E Minor by Florence Price. It was the first time a substantial work by a Black woman was performed by a major symphony orchestra. Price’s music was, sadly, never performed again by the CSO. That is until this month. After an absence of nearly 80 years, Price was again on a CSO program.

Guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta, made Price’s “Mississippi River” the heart of her debut with the CSO.

The work is a 30-minute ride along the river, a journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It opens with daybreak and waxes and wanes in its journey south.
This sound painting opens with the soothing tones of a quiet clarinet (expertly realized by John Bruce Yeh) and slowly builds from there, as nature is evoked and mimicked.

Price’s music reflects some of the romantic flavor of Dvorak as well as the popular sound of her contemporary, Gershwin. Her Mississippi story deftly folds in melodies from several negro spirituals, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Go Down, Moses,” as well as a few traditional songs. Price’s gifts were such that she could take such melodies and insert them into her own musical quilt, creating a beautiful whole.

Chen brought out the murkiness, the sunshine, the mystery and the hopefulness of the score, and the audience loved the results.

The program opened with the brief overture from Mendelssohn’s “The Fair Melusina” (another river-oriented work). It was flowing, dramatic and nicely paced.

The concert concluded with “Sheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Chen led with her Chen: concertmaster Robert Chen’s opening violin solo, representing Sheherazade, was both delicate and plaintive, and his playing was the anchor in this splendid performance.

I found the loudest portions a wee bit muddled, but Chen’s approach was to draw big distinctions, and this generally made for pleasing music.

This concert marked the beginning of the CSO’s month-long Rivers Festival (subtitle: “Nature. Power. Culture.”). It’s “an examination of the significance of rivers in music and culture, the impact they have had throughout history and their importance for the future of our planet.”

This performance was aptly enhanced by a marvelous pre-concert lecture in the Grainger Ballroom. Barbara Wright-Pryor (president of the Chicago Music Association, the same organization Price belonged to when her first symphony was premiered) provided wonderful background to “The Mississippi River,” including details of Florence Price’s life. Wright-Pryor, a retired contralto, even gave voice to the musical examples from the work, beautifully singing the words to the brief examples of the spirituals. Tenor Henry Pleas sang two Price songs with shimmering beauty, leaving anyone who attended only wanting more.

Lyric Opera of Chicago is closing out this season with a splashing big production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical “Oklahoma!” and they are not stinting on the details. It is a fresh and joyful show, full of sun and open air.

The stage is packed with energetic singer-actors equally adept at eliciting laughs as they are with drawing tears. John Cudia creates a winning Curly, a cattleman ready to become a farmer if only Laurey will marry him. Ashley Brown in that role is sweet and smart, and proves her character to be worthy of his love.

Tari Kelly makes for a silly and sometimes hilarious Ado Annie, the girl who can’t say no. David Adam Moore, in the pivotal role of Jud, is a brooding and scary presence. Curtis Holbrook (Will Parker), Paula Scrofano (Aunt Eller) and Usman Ally (Ali Hakim) are equally fine.

The stage evokes the great outdoors, with rustic buildings appearing where needed, and the costumes embody the spirit of the time.

But what really makes this production special is the revival of Agnes de Mille’s original choreography, brought to life by one of her close associates, Gemze de Lappe. The dream ballet at the end of Act I is glorious, with the dancers gracefully advancing the story.

The use of amplification for every voice may be jarring to regulars at the Civic Opera House, notably when Curly’s first strains of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from off stage hit you with full volume long before you even see him. It’s a minor flaw in a marvelous production that even features a spiffing surrey with fringe on the top.