Samantha Ege, Milton Court, review: A vivid, revelatory recital

Pianist and musicologist Samantha Ege couldn’t relate to the tuition she received as a conservatory student: she was looking at a world to which she could never belong.

“Black women did not exist there. Each history seminar, theory class and piano lesson affirmed this apparent reality. Being the only girl of African descent in the music classroom implied that I should not exist there either,” she says.

Until, by chance, she discovered Florence Price, and a new world opened up. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, this black composer-pianist headed to Chicago when race riots and lynchings made life intolerable down South, and she became a leading spirit in what became known as the Black Chicago Renaissance movement in the Thirties.

She was the first black female composer to have a symphony premiered by a major national orchestra; her prolific output moved Eleanor Roosevelt, the American president’s wife, to praise her contribution to American music. And it was hearing her Fantasie Nègre No 1 which finally gave Ege a sense of purpose in her career.

As Ege played this piece at Milton Court, the influences of Debussy and Rachmaninov were readily apparent, but its dramatic cascades, and its melody from a Negro spiritual, marked it out as the product of a new and original voice.

Ege also played Price’s three other Fantaisies Nègres, explaining that these four works, with their blend of American folklore and German Romanticism, might be compared to a series of pieces by Chopin.

If one purpose of this revelatory recital was to draw attention to Ege’s new CD (Fantaisie Nègre, on the Lorelt label), another was to broaden her crusade to remind us of other unjustly forgotten female musicians of the Thirties.

The black composer-pianist – and friend of Price – Margaret Bonds was the first of these, whose Spiritual Suite Samantha Ege despatched with verve; its treatment of the baptismal song “Wade in the Water” had a pleading urgency.

The other musician Ege wanted to champion was the Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová, whose premature death from tuberculosis deprived the world of a unique voice.

At Milton Court, Ege chose to give the UK premiere of her Sonata Appassionata, whose dauntingly virtuosic opening was followed by an ingenious series of variations. But Price’s vivid music was the ultimate joy of the evening: I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more from her.


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