UA Little Rock Professor of Music Linda Holzer has spent a good portion of her academic career exploring the work of two Arkansas composers, Florence Price and William Grant Still. Holzer played Still’s piano concerto “Kaintuck” with the Little Rock Wind Symphony in February 2018. She wrote an essay called “This Is What Diversity Sounds Like” on Price’s piano repertoire for “Clavier Companion” magazine. When Holzer visited Oslo, Norway, about a year ago, she says she was “struck by the fact that there are statues of Kirsten Flagstad, the opera star, and of Sonia Henie, the Olympic gold medalist figure skater, out in public where anyone can see and feel proud. Doesn’t matter if they listen to opera,” Holzer said, “or are into figure skating themselves. It’s a touchstone, a part of Norwegian identity. These exemplary people accomplished great things. And my hope is that more Arkansans will feel that way about these composers who grew up right here, in this state, in this city.”
She has reason to feel optimistic about those prospects. Musicians like Er-Gene Kahng and Karen Walwyn have been at the forefront of a revived interest in the works of Price and Still, and upcoming concerts at UA Little Rock, the Clinton Presidential Center and Robinson Performance Hall are giving the uninitiated a chance to hear Price and Still’s works on the stage in their home state. We talked with Holzer ahead of those performances.
Florence Price was the subject of your doctoral dissertation. You give lectures about her life, and you give recitals of her work. Why her, and how did you happen upon her music?
I was in my 20s, working in the North Carolina Visiting Artist Program, and I had decided to apply to a doctoral studies program in piano performance. I knew writing a dissertation would be part of the degree requirement, and so I had begun exploring possibilities for research. Flipping through the Ladyslipper Music catalog one day in the early 1990s, I noticed a cassette recording, “Althea Waites Performs the Piano Music of Florence Price.” Curious, I bought it, and was inspired by what I heard. Florence Price’s music, the lyrical melodies and passionate harmonies, spoke to me. Music is like that. When you hear something special, it grabs you. Althea Waites was the first pianist to make a recording of Price’s piano music, and in her recording, she provided scholarly program notes, and that helped me get started assembling a bibliography to learn more about this amazing composer.
Why don’t you think Arkansans recognize Price and Still the way — as you’ve put it — the way we recognize Johnny Cash and Maya Angelou?
In American culture, popular musicians and authors enjoy higher profile celebrity status than classical musicians do. But I find it’s really just a question of providing more opportunities for listeners to encounter classical music. And the upcoming concerts featuring music of Price and Still at UA Little Rock (Sunday, Oct. 20), at the Robinson Center (Saturday, Nov. 9, and Sunday, Nov. 10) and at the Clinton Presidential Center (Tuesday, May 5, 2020) are a great way for people to experience something new.
The American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich once observed in an interview at the turn of the 21st century, “There’s another peculiar thing about this time. There are pieces that might have a mass audience, while others have only a small audience. There’s room for both, a place for many kinds of music from the standpoint of the composer and also the audience and the performer. Everybody is making certain choices. One of the distressing things, for those of us who love the great tradition of music, is that probably most people don’t know what their choices are. They listen to the top 40 without even knowing that there’s anything else.” I think she’s right, and I think it’s still true today, although I find students in my classes are more adventurous in their listening, and they do listen to a range of music beyond the “top 40” radio format. But still, modern classical composers typically don’t get as wide recognition as, say, famous masters like Beethoven, or even modern popular authors. … There isn’t a classical music equivalent of The New York Times best-seller list.
As you pointed out in an email to us, the Robinson Center — now Robinson Performance Hall — was built in 1939, by which time Florence Price had left Little Rock and established herself elsewhere as a prize-winning, groundbreaking composer. And at that time, Robinson was a segregated space. Now, an atrium in that very hall is named for Price. What do you think, besides monuments and dedications like that atrium, has to happen for Price to be heralded in a way that’s commensurate with her contributions to American classical music?
I would like to see increased funding for arts education in Arkansas. Florence Price and William Grant Still benefited from their childhood music studies. That’s what awakened their talents and laid the foundation for their future successes as professional musicians. But music study benefits even those who don’t plan to pursue the field professionally. Supporting the arts nurtures Arkansas’s cultural heritage, and means that not only are past stars like Price and Still likely to be performed more, it will lead to future Arkansas composers, performing artists and visual artists, new creative voices.
How does the music of African-American composers from the 20th century speak to modern listeners? What considerations are involved — or not — in programming and performing the music?
Music is the universal language. Remember when Aretha Franklin, who was known as “The Queen of Soul,” stepped in for the ailing Luciano Pavrotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards, and sang the aria, Nessun Dorma? Franklin, a talented professional singer, who knew the craft of music inside and out, could sing many styles of music well. She studied Puccini’s aria, and she left the audience in awe, sang it beautifully. It’s not a question of the race of the composer or the race of the performer. Music is melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and development. When a performer finds music by a composer that speaks to them, magic can happen. It’s a question of valuing diverse creative voices. I learned as a student at Northwestern, and at UNC-Chapel Hill, and at Florida State U, through working with professors who valued great music by unfamiliar modern composers, that it’s just a question of putting your heart into advocacy. If you put an unfamiliar piece on a program, and you’ve studied it well and represent the composer’s creative intentions well, it will win the audience over. That’s how you expand the expressive possibilities of the repertoire. By honoring composers with opportunities to be heard.
The upcoming November concerts have special resonance for me because Howard University Professor Karen Walwyn is herself a woman of color. For her to be giving the Arkansas premiere of Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement is symbolically meaningful. In an ideal world, Florence Price would have been invited back to her hometown after the construction of Robinson Center, to appear with the Arkansas Symphony as the concerto soloist herself. Robinson Center was a segregated facility for many years, and that invitation unfortunately never happened during Price’s lifetime. Audiences in Little Rock are in for a treat in 2019. Dr. Walwyn is a talented virtuoso, who knows this concerto better than anyone alive. The score wasn’t published during Price’s lifetime. It took a great deal of research to construct a published score and parts decades after the composer’s death. Dr. Walwyn made the first recording of the piece, in 2011. When you know a piece at a deep level and have performed it frequently, it allows you to bring the music to life very convincingly.
Okay, let’s assume I’m a casual classical music fan, but I’ve never really heard anything by Price or Still. What do I start with, and why?
The great thing about Florence Price and William Grant Still is that they are prolific composers. Each of them has written hundreds of pieces. And their music is very accessible. So whether you start by listening to one of their art songs, beautiful settings of poetry by Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and others, or with chamber music, or with symphonic music, the thing to do is press play and listen.