Restoring neglected masterworks at the Aspen Music Festival
The Pacifica Quartet puts the groundbreaking Black composer Florence Price on the big stage at the Aspen Music Festival
What: A Recital by the Pacifica Quartet
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Thursday, July 8, 7 p.m.
How much: $75
More info: the program includes Florence Price’s String Quartet No. 1 in G major, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat Major and Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F major
Pacifica Quartet won its second Grammy Award this year, for its latest album, “Contemporary Voices,” for which the group recorded the Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary composers Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
The Illinois-based group engineered a pandemic-safe rehearsals space in an open-air garage last year, which allowed them to continue practicing, to work on new repertoire and the “Contemporary Voices” compositions, and led to the much-anticipated program they will perform July 8 at the Benedict Music Tent.
Pacifica is an Aspen staple and leads the Center for Advanced Quartet Studies at the Aspen Music Festival and School. After about a year off due to pandemic cancellations, the quartet has been playing for live audiences in varied set-ups around the U.S. since March.
“We’re thrilled to be back in our chairs playing for live audience and plying such great rep,” said violinist Austin Hartman.
The quartet’s Aspen program includes Pacifica performances of a string quartet by Florence Price, the groundbreaking African-American composer whose works are among those being spotlighted this summer as part of the Aspen Music Fest’s equity initiative. Price has a second quartet on the schedule July 22 in a recital by the Excher String Quartet.
I talked to Hartman about Price’s work and another neglected female composer, Fanny Mendelssohn, and about Pacifica’s role in returning their work to its rightful place in the canon.
AT: How did Pacifica Quartet start digging into Florence Price’s work?
AH: We did a whole program devoted to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. And we thought this Florence Price piece would be wonderful to include as part of that project. And we enjoyed it so much that we wanted to program it outside of that project. We’re thrilled to be able to play it.
AT: Do you have previous history with Price’s work?
AH: All of us had known about Florence Price and so many of her pioneering achievements — being the first Black woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and to have her piece played by major symphony orchestras, and to get to know her chamber music as well. You know, she composed the two string quartets as well as five folk songs and two piano quintets. Knowing all of this repertoire, we thought, “Let’s really unpack this. We knew the slow movements, more so than the first movement. But the first movement is really beautiful and good-natured—generally the piece has such a sense of optimism throughout, which we love. We love that sound of that we love the soulfulness of movement, which we think is probably the gem of this quartet.
‘The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price’
By Rae Linda Brown
336 pages, $29.95
University of Illinois Press, 2020
‘Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn’
By R. Larry Todd
426 pages, $38.75
Oxford University Press, 2009
AT: And the the Fanny Mendelssohn piece has sort of a similar history, in that it hasn’t been performed as much through the decades due to sexism. It’s part of the “Women of Uncommon Note” theme in Aspen this summer. How you come to that piece?
AH: Well, the Pacifica quartet has done large cycles of pieces, including the Felix Mendelssohn string quartet cycle. Playing that, we’ve known the importance of Fanny Mendelssohn, both personally for Felix, and in terms of her writing. If you know the Felix Mendelssohn string quartets, and then hear this piece, many people might be wondering, “Well, who composed what?” There’s some questions as to whether Felix composed all of all of the notes of all those pieces. There’s suspicion that maybe she had her hand in some of Felix’s compositions. And of course, this piece has so many wonderful, beautiful moment moments, there’s the romance of this is evocative first movement that we enjoyed playing and the last movement has a fiery, quicksilver feeling.
AT: It’s important to you then, to use your platform to raise up voices from neglected composers to move music toward gender equity and racial equity? Do you consciously think about those choices and their impact?
AH: As a quartet, and as a serious classical performing artists really feel it’s important to give everyone a chance to be heard. And that goes from pieces of the past to pieces of the present. The way that we see our platform is that we are interested in bringing attention to composers that have composed what we believe are great masterpieces, and that deserve a hearing in this time. And so that goes to a piece say like the the Florence price that was written in 1929 to things that are new — like, we’re doing a bunch of commissions even this season. And I think that that’s the beautiful thing about our repertoire is it covers many centuries, and we’ve had the opportunity to unpack those pieces and to get to know them. And the pandemic was an opportunity for us to explore some of these new, forgotten masterworks and then to find creative ways of spreading them into our programming.
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