top of page

Program Notes: Barber and Price (February 2, 2024)


February 2, 2024

Valerie Coleman

Umoja: Anthem of Unity (2019)

Samuel Barber

Violin Concerto, op. 14



Presto in moto perpetuo

Augustin Hadelich, violin


Florence Price

Symphony No. 3 in C minor


Andante ma non troppo

Juba (Allegro)

Scherzo. Finale


Program Notes

What does it mean to be an American composer in the 21st century? For Valerie Coleman, the clue is in her biography: entrepreneur. Composers today must create opportunities for themselves, establish ensembles to perform their music, forge artistic partnerships, connect with their communities, and build audiences in creative ways. It’s not enough to simply compose. 

Meanwhile, for the creation of new orchestral music—an endeavor that’s time-consuming and expensive to realize—a very old strategy continues to dominate: the commission. And this concert begins with music that was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019: Umoja: Anthem of Unity. It’s the supreme incarnation of a sweetly powerful work that Coleman has been nurturing for two decades, from its original choral version to chamber music and beyond. 

For Samuel Barber and Florence Price, composing in the 1930s and ’40s, orchestral commissions—and the philanthropy that supported them—were equally important. In 1939, Virgil Thomson (a composer moonlighting as an influential music critic) declared there were only five American composers who could “live on their take from commissions and performances.” Barber’s name was on the list, and his Violin Concerto was the first of the many significant commissions that would come his way. The fee was funded by a soap magnate.

Barber enjoyed the rare privilege of being in demand. He returned the compliment with music that’s Romantic to the core: rich melodies, strong emotions, attractive in every way. Florence Price’s music possesses those same qualities, but, as she wrote to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1943: “I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” Her First Symphony had been premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933—making her the first Black American woman to have a work performed by a major U.S. orchestra—but this hadn’t opened as many doors as she’d hoped. 

There were no soap magnates in Price’s life, but there was the WPA. Established as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Work Projects Administration provided vital and relevant employment to writers, artists, actors, and musicians, and through the Federal Music Project it commissioned new works, including Price’s Third Symphony. The premiere in 1940 was a huge success and Price was called to the stage again and again. But the acclaim didn’t survive her death in 1953, and it’s only this century that Price’s significance has been recognized and her music rescued from obscurity, allowing us to enjoy this brilliant and eloquent voice.

Valerie Coleman

Umoja: Anthem of Unity

Valerie Coleman

Born 1970, Louisville, Kentucky

Valerie Coleman’s Umoja: Anthem of Unity has its roots in the celebration of Kwanzaa, with the Swahili word umoja meaning “unity.” It’s a fitting title for a composition that was initially crafted as a song for women’s choir and intended to invoke a sense of communal harmony, reminiscent of a drum circle, in which history is passed down through the call-and-response tradition. Since that original version more than two decades ago, the work has woven its way through various musical traditions and interpretations, with versions for chamber ensembles, flute choir, concert band, and now orchestra. 

The first instrumental version was a wind quintet for Coleman’s own ensemble, Imani Winds (imani means “faith” in Swahili). This adaptation was intended to celebrate the diverse cultural heritages of the ensemble’s members and has become a signature work in its repertoire.

Since then, Coleman has arranged Umoja for a variety of ensembles, showcasing its versatility and universal appeal. Whether arranged for flute choir, wind trio, brass quintet, or string quartet, each new version has carried the essence of the original while embracing new colors.

The orchestral version, which was composed for the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 2019, is a mature and complex iteration of Coleman’s vision for the music. It begins with the distinctive sonorities of bowed percussion instruments (vibraphone, glockenspiel and marimba), leading to the introduction of the theme by a solo violin, reminiscent of the melodic purity of Appalachian or celtic fiddle music. 

As the piece unfolds, writes Coleman, “the melody dances and weaves throughout the instrument families, interrupted by dissonant viewpoints from the brass and percussion sections, which represent the clash of injustices, racism and hate that threatens to gain a foothold in the world today.” Eventually, the piece returns to the original melody, a serene call to compassion, culminating in a unifying, ensemble-driven finale.

The various iterations of Umoja resonate with the same themes but each is distinguished by its distinctive expression and context. They are analogous to the African diaspora itself: diverse and individual, yet bound by a shared origin. Coleman’s Umoja is more than a composition—it is a vibrant, musical invocation for a world increasingly in need of unity and freedom.

Coleman’s preface in the score includes the following words:

Listen my people,

Children of ALL

It’s time for Unity

Hear the Winds call.

Oh a-hum, a-hum Nkosi ah.

Oh a-hum, a-hum Nkosi ah

Justino Gordón-LeChevalié © 2023

About the composer

New York-based Valerie Coleman is a composer, Grammy-nominated flutist, and founder of the quintet Imani Winds. She is regarded by many as an iconic artist who has forged her own creative and entrepreneurial path, and in 2020 Performance Today named her Classical Woman of the Year. In addition to Umoja, recent orchestral works have included Fanfare for Uncommon Times (Orchestra of St. Luke’s), Seven O’Clock Shout (Philadelphia Orchestra), and This Is Not a Small Voice, a song cycle for soprano Angel Blue. Earlier this year, she completed Giants of Light for the 10th anniversary of the National Youth Orchestra. In recent months, members of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra have performed her wind quintet Tzigane and the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra has performed Seven O’Clock Shout. 

First performance: October 15, 2019 at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra, 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting 

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, bass trombone, tuba, harp, timpani, percussion, piano, strings 

Approximate duration: 14 minutes 

Samuel Barber

Violin Concerto

Samuel Barber

Born 1910 West Chester, Pennsylvania

Died 1981 New York City

At age 9, American composer Samuel Barber handed his mother a letter. “Mother,” he wrote, “I have written to tell you a worrying secret. I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer.” By age 14 he was enrolled in the newly founded Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and soon winning major prizes. His first large-scale orchestral work to be published, his overture to The School for Scandal (1931), won him a Bearns Award, and even as a 21 year old, his musical voice was clear: combining deep wells of emotion with rigorous technique. “My aim,” he said in 1935, “is to write good music that will be comprehensible to as many people as possible.” 

Barber came to international attention in 1938 when Arturo Toscanini programmed his Adagio for Strings in one of his orchestral broadcasts. After this, almost all of Barber’s works were commissioned and his music would be in demand for the rest of his life. The following year, when composer and critic Virgil Thomson declared there were only five “standard” American composers who could “live on their take from commissions and performances,” Barber’s name was on the list. 

The Violin Concerto was the first significant commission to come Barber’s way, and it arrived courtesy of soap magnate Samuel Fels. Not simply the manufacturer of Fels-Naptha, he was on the board of trustees at Curtis, and he and his wife had adopted Iso Briselli, an Odessa-born violin prodigy who’d arrived at Curtis in 1924 as a 12 year old. Fels wanted a concerto for Briselli and he offered a generous fee of $1,000 (approximately $22,000 today) with half as a down payment. It was enough to take Barber from the poky apartment he shared with his partner, composer Gian Carlo Menotti, to Switzerland. 

There, Barber completed the first two movements—richly melodic, elegant and Romantic in character, and revealing at every turn that Barber was also a singer (a fine baritone), with strong lyrical instincts. Following in the tradition of Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, Barber introduces the soloist at the very beginning, unfurling a delectable melody in long arcing lines before the clarinet takes over with a buoyant, “snapping” tune. But storm clouds darken the sky—Barber wrote much of the concerto in Europe, threatened by the imminent danger of war.

(When the Nazis invaded Poland, Barber and Menotti fled first to Paris and then to a lakeside retreat in Pennsylvania, where the concerto was completed in 1940.)

In the slow second movement an oboe solo pulls us inwards. (A nod to Johannes Brahms’s violin concerto perhaps?) This is intimate music that offers a portrait of a composer in solitude, musing quietly in his private world of music, books, and art. Solo winds and horn bring us to a place that lies somewhere between melancholy and nostalgia. 

From the outset the concerto has been praised for its straightforwardness and sincerity, its graceful charm, and its purity of intent. It’s small wonder that this is one of the most popular concertos of the 20th century. 

But there is tension in the story of this work and Barber would later call it his concerto del sapone (“soap concerto”). A biography of Barber from 1954 claimed that Briselli had thought the first two movements “too simple and not brilliant enough” for a concerto, before rejecting the finale, which Barber had filled with ample opportunities for virtuoso display, as “too difficult.” This seems implausible for such an accomplished musician, and many years later, Briselli claimed he’d thought the finale “too lightweight.” Eventually, in 2010, the correspondence between Fels and Barber was published. It turns out that it was not Briselli who’d rejected the concerto but his teacher, Albert Meiff, who’d found it insufficiently “violinistic.” 

In the end, Briselli didn’t perform the premiere, and the concerto was taken up by Albert Spalding (nephew of the Hall-of-Fame baseball pitcher Al Spalding), who wanted an American work he could take on tour. And the disputed finale? It’s remarkable for its bold harmonies and impetuous rhythms, and at one point the soloist plays for 110 measures without interruption in a brilliant “perpetual motion.” This is music that fizzes like popped champagne. At parties with friends, Barber’s warmth was sharpened with an acid wit. The violin is a tongue that dishes gossip and enjoys several rounds of drinks.

Notes by Tim Munro © 2022 and Yvonne Frindle 

First performance: February 11, 1941, Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with Albert Spalding as soloist

First SLSO performance: June 24, 1976, Leonard Slatkin conducting, Dylana Jenson as soloist 

Most recent SLSO performance: December 6, 2009, Peter Oundjian conducting, David Halen as soloist

Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, piano, strings 

Approximate duration: 25 minutes 

Florence Price

Symphony No. 3

Florence Price

Born 1887 Little Rock, Arkansas

Died 1953 Chicago, Illinois

One might expect the historic premiere of Florence Price’s First Symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 to have won her a modicum of access to that orchestra and others for her later compositions—but that was not the case. Her First Symphony remained unpublished until 2008, her Second Symphony is missing, and her Fourth Symphony (1945) went unperformed in her lifetime and unpublished until 2020. How could the work of such a brilliant and significant symphonist remain so obscure for so long?

Price’s letters answer that question plainly. She repeatedly tried to persuade conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874–1951) to program her music—in vain. One of her letters to him, dated July 5, 1943, describes the difficulties she faced outright:

To begin with, I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought content; until you shall have examined some of my work? ... As to the handicap of race, ... I should like to be judged on merit alone—the great trouble having been to get conductors, who know nothing of my work ... to even consent to examine a score.

Fortunately, Price’s Third Symphony did not go entirely unheard in her lifetime: it was performed by Valter Poole and the Michigan WPA Symphony Orchestra (also known as the Detroit Civic Orchestra) on November 6 and 8, 1940. Those performances were a success, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reported enthusiastically on the work in her syndicated newspaper column, My Day—but that was not enough to rescue the work from the oblivion to which the “handicaps” of its composer’s race and sex doomed it. It was not heard again in her lifetime and remained unperformed until 2001 and unpublished until 2008. Only now is it beginning to be heard in concert halls with any regularity.

Nevertheless, Florence Price’s Third Symphony towers over its surviving predecessor in originality and maturity of conception—and the composer’s correspondence shows that she understood its significance fully. In a 1940 letter she stated that it was “Negroid in character and expression” but hastened to clarify that it did not merely replicate the African American tradition as it was represented in her First Symphony. The later work, she said, was “a cross section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by concepts of the present day” (emphasis added)—a reference to the Third Symphony’s cultivation of dissonant passages, jarring percussion, and other modernist expressive devices that were absent from the First Symphony but central to 20th-century music in general, and to much of Price’s later music. 

These descriptions do not just reveal Price’s ideas about the music of this ambitious work. Even more, they reveal that she understood that it signaled a new stage in her development as a composer and paved the way for some of the most important and startlingly original compositions of her entire career.

Price’s Third Symphony is cast in four movements, all pitting traditional African American and modernist elements against each other. The first movement foregrounds 20th-century styles from the outset, beginning with an unsettled slow introduction (Andante) and moving from there to a turbulent and dissonant main theme (Allegro); only with the lush and expansive second theme, entrusted first to the solo trombone, do the flavors of Black vernacular styles come to the foreground. Those flavors launch the tranquil Andante ma non troppo, but the serene beauty of its opening section is repeatedly interrupted by unsettled whole-tone material that reminds us that this is, after all, music of the 20th century, not the 19th. 

The third movement is an African American Juba dance, but it also includes a blues-influenced theme that introduces a new facet of Black vernacular styles into the symphony. And the Scherzo finale is a kaleidoscopic exploration of orchestral virtuosity and swirling colors. Although African American stylistic influences make themselves felt here, on the whole, the turbulence and harmonic adventure of mid-20th-century classical music predominate. Time and again, the restlessness promises to subside, and time and again, the barely established calm is broken—until finally Price abandons any attempt to resolve the conflict between the two. The Symphony’s close is a tour de force of swirling, chaotic abandon punctuated by dissonance and chromaticism, and its final bars are a fury of roaring percussion and chordal interjections that finally manage to reclaim the work from turbulence and discord—the conflicting and discordant forces of the musical world, and the African American condition, given eloquent voice in this symphony.

John Michael Cooper © 2022

First performance: November 6, 1940 by the Detroit Civic Orchestra, Valter Poole conducting 

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, strings 

Approximate duration: 30 minutes

Augustin Hadelich

Augustin Hadelich


Violinist Augustin Hadelich has performed with all the major American orchestras as well as the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo, and many other eminent ensembles. 

In summer 2023 Hadelich appeared in the BBC Proms and made a much-anticipated debut with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival. He began the 2023/24 season giving the German premiere of Donnacha Dennehy’s Violin Concerto, composed for him, as well as appearing as a soloist in the season opening concerts of the Orchestre National de France and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. 

This season Hadelich also debuts with Staatskapelle Dresden, Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and the NDR Radiophilharmonie, as well as concerts with the Barcelona, Danish National and Finnish Radio symphony orchestras; the Netherlands and Brussels philharmonic orchestras; Philharmonia Zürich; and Tonkünstler Orchester. In North America, Hadelich also plays with the Cleveland Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to name a few. His Asian engagements will see him perform with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and the Taiwan and Seoul philharmonic orchestras. 

He is also busy as a recitalist and recording artist, and his most recent recording, Recuerdos, features music by Britten, Prokofiev, and Sarasate, performed with the WDR Symphony Orchestra. 

Hadelich studied with Joel Smirnoff at the Juilliard School, and achieved a career breakthrough in 2006 when he won the International Violin Competition in Indianapolis. Since then he has received an Avery Fisher Career Grant, a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship, an honorary doctorate from the University of Exeter, and in 2018 was named Musical America Instrumentalist of the Year. He plays a violin by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù from 1744, known as “Leduc, ex Szeryng,” on loan from the Tarisio Trust.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


bottom of page