The Andover Choral Society will give voice to a long-lost work by an African American composer largely ignored in her lifetime and largely forgotten after her death.

On Saturday afternoon at 3 in North Andover High School's auditorium, the 80-member chorus will sing Florence Price's "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight."

Price's life story and her music has stirred excitement both nationally and among the Andover chorus, conductor Michael Driscoll and accompanist Valerie Becker.

They are excited for the string of firsts associated with Price, for the composition's serendipitous discovery and for the resurgent interest in the composer.

Saturday's concert will be a world premiere. Price's composition is based on a 1914 poem by Chicago poet Vachel Lindsay, who imagined a restless Lincoln pacing the countryside lamenting the carnage unfolding in World War I.

Price likely wrote the music in the years after World War II. Her unpublished score for piano, chorus and solo was only discovered in 2009 among boxes in an abandoned summer home in Illinois.

Since then, the mystery and music have combined to inspire readers and musicians.

Among them is Driscoll, who entered Price's handwritten score on a computer program, making the music available for distribution and performance.

Driscoll hears the rhythm and tones of Price's life in the piece: classical European influences, African American spiritual harmonies and early popular music.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Price was classically trained at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, graduating in 1906.

She knew traditions associated with the African American church and later worked as a teacher and as an organist for silent movies. The myriad of influences added complexity to her oeuvre.

"The music takes unexpected twists and turns harmonically and is frequently changing keys, which has made it a challenge for the chorus," Driscoll said.

Becker, the accompanist, a teacher at several conservatories, including the New England Conservatory, said she is especially taken with Price's interspersal of chromatic tones within regular scales, a style often associated with the German composer Wagner.

"It really helps create wonderful colors and moods that go with the poetry and bring it to life," she said.

The Andover Choral Society typically listens to pieces before they rehearse them, but here, with the Lincoln composition, no one has performed it before, so they are hearing it for the first time as they sing it, soprano Janet Barnes, of Hamilton, said.

And that newness makes for an exciting challenge.

Barnes, who grew up in Danvers and has been singing in choirs since first grade, said this is the largest number of people she has seen performing in the choral group for a particular season.

"I think this piece has a lot to do with it," she said. "It's by a woman, an African American woman. It is exciting for all of us." 

This may be the first time the choral society has done a work by a woman, certainly a first by an African American woman, said Jennifer Hickman, of Andover, who is one of 27 altos in the ensemble.

The rest of the chorus consists of 28 sopranos, seven tenors and 18 basses. They will also sing a medley of popular George Gershwin numbers in addition to other works by Price.

Guest soloists will be Kynesha Patterson, soprano, and Philip Lima, baritone.

The Andover Baptist Church Unity Choir, directed by Michael Belcher, will sing its own selections of works by Price and others and, at the end, a gospel piece in tandem with the choral society.

Price, the long-overlooked musician and composer who wrote some 300 works over her lifetime, is the star of the show.

Throughout the land, people are taking more interest in her music. In the last year or two, other groups have performed Price compositions.

Driscoll has heard recently from four or five music directors across the nation who are interested in also presenting Price's Lincoln piece.

On April 12, in Cambridge, the Du Bois Orchestra at Harvard University performed the piece for orchestra, choir and soloists. Its conductor, Nathaniel Meyer, said the scores for the orchestral and piano pieces are distinct, enough so to be considered separately while still sharing the same musical conception.

Meyer considers Price's Lincoln conception a prayer of sorts, a plea for the realization of the American ideal of equality, coming from someone who knew firsthand the slings and arrows of inequality.

Price, in 1933, became the first African American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony in E Minor.

After that, however, the musical establishment largely turned a deaf ear to her work. In a 1943 letter to Boston Symphony Orchestra musical director Serge Koussevitzky, she sought an ear for her music, for the BSO to perform her compositions.

In the letter, she acknowledged two huge hurdles to being heard — having African American blood and being a woman, said Meyer, a champion of her music.

"Her musical style fills a missing piece in the puzzle of American music history," he said. "I think it is a masterpiece, a great lost American treasure."

Twice, at the end of her life, in 1951 and 1953, she was invited to Europe for performances of her music, the last time to Paris, said David Fitch of the Andover Choral Society, who gave a talk on Price's life last week in Andover.

Both times, she got sick and was unable to travel. She died in Chicago, June 3, 1953.

Price will be heard on Saturday.

Andover Choral bass singer Tom Connolly, of Haverhill, said the poem and music speak to him

"It is beautiful," he said.

IF YOU GO

What: Andover Choral Society premieres Florence Price's "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," plus other Price works; with selections by the Andover Baptist Church Unity Choir

When: Saturday, May 4, 3 p.m.

Where: North Andover High School auditorium, 430 Osgood St., North Andover

How much: $20 adults in advance, $25 at the door; $5 students; group rates available

More information: 978-682-4050 or andoverchoralsociety.org

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