Review: Melissa White Plays Florence Price Violin Concerto No. 2 with NatPhil

April 20, 2023, 11:59 AM · Since Er-Gene Kahng’s groundbreaking 2018 recording of Florence Price’s violin concertos, it has been incredibly heartening to witness these works become regular concert hall staples. Dr. Khang still performs these concerti, and we are so fortunate to have three additional prominent exponents of these works. Kelly Hall-Tompkins has presented the second concerto with orchestras across the United States regularly since 2019, Randall Goosby has committed recordings of both concerti to a disc scheduled for a May 2023 release, and Melissa White continues performing both, with her 2022/2023 schedule having included an appearance as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Melissa White
Violinist Melissa White. Photo by Dario Accosta.

On Saturday, April 15, 2023, Ms. White performed Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Piotr Gajewski and the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore. The evening was a “full circle moment”: in February 2020, Melissa appeared as soloist with the National Philharmonic in performance of the first Price violin concerto. Noted for being an “excellent advocate (The Washington Post)” and praised for the “grace, precision and warmth she brought to the stage (Maryland Theater Guide)”, that performance was one to remember, not only due to Ms. White’s stellar musicmaking but also considering that our world came to a frightening and screeching halt just a few weeks later due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

As we continue the return to pre-cataclysmic normalcy, going back to Strathmore for last week’s concert was a true joy, and I have to congratulate the National Philharmonic for being one of the many orchestras/arts organizations that has adopted and maintained a holistic approach to navigating the challenges presented due to the 2020 shutdown and later calls for racial equity in the field of concert music. NatPhil CEO Jim Kelly has remained committed to doing “the right things for the right reasons”, with that position being highlighted by a commitment to artistic and musical excellence. All of this was more than present during Ms. White’s recent appearance.

Opportunity comes with all “new to us” concert works, both recently composed and “rediscovered”: the musical expectations that we have when hearing performances of warhorses like the concerti of Brahms, Tchaikovsky (and even early twentieth-century works by Prokofieff) disappear, the result being an openness to the individuals who have an opportunity to shape our perception and understanding through their musical sensibilities. Melissa took a “modern” approach to Ms. Price’s 1952 concerto, eschewing “old school” Romantic affects while adopting a soaring, energetic and almost twenty-first century profile. Additionally, Ms. White’s extensive experience as a member of the Harlem Quartet came to the fore, as communication with conductor Piotr Gajewski and the entire orchestra flowed seamlessly and effortlessly. The juxtaposition of that sensitivity and Melissa’s “effortless mastery” of virtuosic passages made for a truly spellbinding performance, one that received a long and well-deserved standing ovation.

As an encore, Ms. White played the Andante from J. S. Bach’s A Minor Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin. While listening, I found myself “leaning in” (as the entire audience did) and remembering my first life-changing Bach experience in a concert hall: in 1994, on a MONDAY night in Houston, Christian Tetzlaff played the Largo from Bach’s C Major Sonata after delivering a blisteringly hot reading of the Dvorak Violin Concerto with the Houston Symphony. During that encore – and again, it must be said that it was on the third night of the series – the energy in Houston’s Jones Hall was one of silently “leaning in” while being brought into an artist’s world. After Melissa’s performance of the Price, the same happened as she stood steadily, gracious, and contemplative: not a word, not a movement from the audience, just silence and truly rapt attention as she gave us all a moment of needed musical and spiritual repose. The standing ovation after that encore – which was the SECOND of the evening – said everything.

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April 20, 2023 at 07:25 PM · Thanks for this, Samuel, and for your playing in advocating Price's work! I've been on a bit of a Price kick, since my amateur quartet decided to work on Price's G major string quartet. It's nice to have more recordings/viewpoints on this music.

I don't have a historical context for placing Price's approach to composition, but it has been interesting to listen to the first violin concerto, which I hear now as really post-modern in its use of different quotation (way before Schnittke was exploring that territory) to a much more compact and personal expression in the second violin concerto.

I enjoyed hearing Melissa White a year ago as head of the Harlem Quartet, so hopefully I can hear her as soloist some time.

April 21, 2023 at 05:14 PM · Samuel, thank you so much for this wonderful review! Ms. White's performance sounds amazing. I particularly love the way you described the encore. I've had that experience a few times, most recently hearing Blake Pouliot play an unaccompanied version of "The Last Rose of Summer" that I honestly thought might break my heart in two. (And it followed the triumphant Mendelssohn.)

April 25, 2023 at 04:45 AM · Thank you so much, Diana! For the record: I wasn't "given the assignment" to write this review, but after the concert I came home thinking "I can't NOT document this". Would love to hear more about Blake Pouliot's "Last Rose".

April 25, 2023 at 04:46 AM · Christian - Thank you and your words - "it has been interesting to listen to the first violin concerto, which I hear now as really post-modern in its use of different quotation (way before Schnittke was exploring that territory)" - are a musicologist's dream!

April 25, 2023 at 09:29 AM · Samuel -I really liked what you wrote about post-concert reflection: 'I came home thinking "I can't NOT document this".' I keep a little notebook of musical-and-other wisdoms, and I have included your words.

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