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South Florida Symphony's Masterworks Concert Highlights Female African-American Composers

For the South Florida Symphony Orchestra's first Masterworks concert of the year, maestra Sebrina María Alfonso will shine a spotlight on two African-American female composers.
Maestra Sebrina María Alfonso leads the South Florida Symphony Orchestra in its first concert of 2024, with three concerts in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Key West.
Maestra Sebrina María Alfonso leads the South Florida Symphony Orchestra in its first concert of 2024, with three concerts in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Key West. Photo by Steven T. Shires
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Sebrina María Alfonso says that her love for music began at an early age, where it was nurtured during elementary school and cemented in the ninth grade.

At the time, her Key West-based family picked up and moved to Italy, where she stumbled onto an opera performance and hasn't been the same since.

The fateful encounter planted a slew of symphonic seeds, which fertilized, then grew, and eventually bloomed into a crescendo of trees laden with classical notes and melodies.

Now, she is one of the few female conductors in the United States and leads the South Florida Symphony Orchestra as music director after founding the orchestra in 1997.

For the orchestra's first Masterworks concert of the year, the maestra will shine a spotlight on two African-American female composers: Florence Price and Jessie Montgomery. The concerts take place on Wednesday, January 17, at the Parker in Fort Lauderdale, and on Thursday, January 18, at Temple Israel of Greater Miami. The final concert is at the Tennessee Williams Theatre of the College of the Florida Keys in Key West on Sunday, January 20.

SFSO's tribute to Price will embody Andante moderato, a string quartet piece that combines Western music with African-American spirituals.

Alfonso hopes to introduce the composer to those unfamiliar with her work and is thrilled that the concert will be an opportunity to do so.

Price is known for being the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra: the Chicago Symphony played one of her works at the 1933 World's Fair, and it is part of a long list of accomplishments for the largely unknown composer. This includes more than 300 works, including four concertos, four symphonies, chamber music, art songs, choral works, and music for solo instruments.

"I really didn't know that much about her," admits Alfonso. "But Florence Price was a pioneer for women. People need to learn about Florence Price in the music world."
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Pianist Awadagin Pratt will join the South Florida Symphony Orchestra for the trio of January concerts.
Photo by Rob Davidson
Internationally renowned pianist Awadagin Pratt will do his part by highlighting Montgomery, a 42-year-old contemporary composer, violinist, and educator born in New York City.

Pratt joins SFSO with a premiere of a new piano concerto by Montgomery, who is known for her composition "Rounds," which was nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

The piece for solo piano and orchestra was commissioned by Pratt and is based on T.S. Eliot's poem "Burnt Norton" and the first of his Four Quartets. He will also perform Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 4 during the event.

Pratt compared the two pieces and concluded that they share common themes. "They're both pieces that I do enjoy quite a bit."

"[Bach] is very rhythmic," he explains. "It has the same kind of rhythmic energy, similar, I should say, as Jesse. In an overall state, they're rather similar in that they start energetically and then have a very contemplative and beautiful kind of soliloquy-like middle sections, and then return to rhythmically vigorous music for their completion. The contrast between the rhythmically charged and that which is more reflective, and it just sort of takes its own pace, of its own time, expressing beauty."

As part of the event, Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 will also be performed.

In all, as Alfonso looks forward to a program highlighting the accomplishments of female composers, she recalls the challenges that she and other women have faced. However, she says she is pleased there is change on the horizon.

"I had to carve out my own way," recalls Alfonso. "I really did. A lot of women did, and until recently, it's always been two or three women out there. And you know, they're getting a little older now. They're all in their 60s. But, now I'm just so thrilled when I go and look at these major orchestras, and there's women all over."

Part of it is due to changing perspectives.

"There is this big movement in the symphonic world, and I feel like we're very cognizant of that," she says. "And we do try to be very diverse. I think that there's nothing wrong with trying to represent what this country is and making sure that everyone can be a part of this."
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Sebrina Maria Alfonso founded the orchestra in her hometown of Key West in 1997.
Photo by Steven T. Shires
Ultimately, Alfonso hopes that the upcoming event will bring everyone together as the orchestra strikes a balance between classic and contemporary pieces through its introduction and celebration of women composers. She aims for the audience to be just as enamored as she is.

"I just love Florence Price because she is a hero for women," she says. "People don't know her story, and they will learn it, and they will love it because of the fact that we're going to do her music, and then we're going to do this young, fabulous African-American composer who is alive and whose music is being played in every major orchestra I was looking at. She's really made it because she's talented. And that's just amazing to me. And I love that we've come to that point."

Pratt points out that the concert will also be a unique experience, particularly for fans of Montgomery's work.

"A lot of times, music is just played once. You know, there's a premiere, there's a big festivity, and there's 'Oh, here's this great piece,' and then it never gets played again. And so here's a piece that has been celebrated, that audiences keep wanting to hear, and hopefully, there's a long life of it being performed."

He points out the opportunity of the Brahms symphony on the same bill as Montgomery's work.

"It's kind of a rare opportunity to hear a piece that's in that category of a piece of music that everybody likes and also, contrasted or juxtaposed, against or with, a piece that was written 300 years before...[to] hear the resonances where the two pieces speak to each other, even across time, that is a unique opportunity."

Alfonso agrees.

"It's not just a concert. It's about an experience. It's all-encompassing. This music replenishes the soul," she says. "It's soul food."

– Sergy Odiduro, ArtburstMiami.com

South Florida Symphony Orchestra Masterworks II. 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 17, at the Parker, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale; Thursday, January 18, at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, 137 NE 19th St., Miami; and Sunday, January 20, at the Tennessee Williams Theatre of the College of the Florida Keys, 5901 College Rd., Key West; 954-522-8445; southfloridasymphony.org. Tickets cost $12.50 to $95.
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