Michelle Cann at piano

5 Questions with Groundbreaking Pianist Michelle Cann

Cann explores her roles as artist, educator, and activist, and what it means to be successful.
September 19, 2023

“a desire to inspire change”

Interview of Michelle Cann by Krista Thomas, Cal Performances’ Associate Director of Communications

Michelle Cann is a star in every sense: a phenomenal pianist, an empathetic educator, and an impassioned champion of underrecognized Black female pianist-composers. In 2022, Cann won the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, which is awarded based on “artistic excellence, outstanding work ethic, a spirit of determination, and an ongoing commitment to leadership and [artists’] communities.” Around that same time, she also became the first African American appointed to the piano faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music, where she continues to teach and mentor other musicians. Cal Performances is thrilled to welcome Cann for the first time to Hertz Hall on October 29 for a characteristically rich program that mixes classical works with the music of the brilliant American composer Florence Price, as well as a new work by Joel Thompson that reflects on the killing of unarmed Black men in the US.

Ahead of her Cal Performances debut, Cann answered questions about her program, her career, and what it means to be “successful.”

Q: This is your debut at Cal Performances. What is your primary objective with a debut? What approach do you take in crafting a program for a new audience?
A: For me, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s a debut, because it’s important to consider the audience whether it’s their first time or fifth time seeing me. I’m always thinking, “What do I think the audience will really value? What do they already know and love? And, how can I teach them something new?” I still program works people already know and will be happy to hear played, but I also feel that, as musicians in this day and age, we are doing nothing for the field if we sit right there. We have a duty to also bring something to broaden the audience’s perspective and expand the classical field for generations to come. There has got to be a balance.

You can see that approach in this program, too. I have some traditional works like the Ginastera sonata, everyone knows Ravel and Liszt; but then there’s also Price and Thompson. With Thompson, I’m bringing something very new—he only wrote that piece during the pandemic; and while Price is an older composer, many audiences are still getting to know her and her music.

Q: You are known as one of the premiere champions of Florence Price’s work. You’ve mentioned previously that you were first introduced to Price in 2016 when you were asked to perform her Piano Concerto in One Movement. What drew you to Price initially, and is it the same thing that draws you to her today?
A: My initial excitement and shock came from really loving the piano concerto I was asked to play. It was charming and powerful and made me curious to know more about the creator. Then when I found out how phenomenal she was, it only enhanced the value of the music.
As I read more about her, though, I was also disappointed because she encountered so many barriers, as many Black composers during that period did. When she died in the 1950s, she could never say she overcame them all—she never got to have her concertos performed with any major orchestra other than the Chicago Symphony, and many of her works remained unpublished at her desk. And I’m upset it has taken so long to uncover her work. When people say they don’t want to hear about race, I always think we are still talking about it because we still have so much work to do. The fact that someone like this has had to wait until 2018 to have things be rectified and get recognition, that’s a problem.

For me, that is how the thread has taken on a different meaning over time. It has become a mission to me, that desire to inspire change. Part of this is performing her music and sharing the power and beauty of her writing because that speaks for itself. That said, there are even more Black female composers than Price who have not been given their due, and I’m going to be one of those people to do something about it.

Q: The program you’re bringing to Cal Performances features Price’s Piano Sonata in E minor. What made you want to perform this work, and what do you think audiences should know about it beforehand?
A: Programming Price was an easy decision because she was the beginning of my journey in finding these forgotten or lost voices. This sonata in particular is the grandest piano work in her repertoire, and it has additional significance because she was most known for winning a competition in 1932 for her Symphony No. 1, which was later performed by the Chicago Symphony and ultimately put her on the map. But fewer people know that, in that same competition, she also submitted this sonata in a different category and won top prize for it as well, so it had a lot of significance to her.

I also think this work showcases all the things that are great about her. Each movement in the sonata brings in influences from her life and writing that you see in the rest of her music. In the first movement especially, you hear the connection to past titans of Romantic composition who inspired her, such as Dvořák and even Schumann and Brahms. There are moments that are reflective of each of their musical styles, and yet it is so original to Price. She is clearly inspired by their music and mixes it with folk material and folk songs.

The second movement is very beautiful and it’s based on the form of a spiritual, which tended to be repetitive, employ simple melodies, and be very religious in nature and able to speak to the Black American experience in slavery and beyond. In this instance, she has crafted her own original spiritual, not based on any known work.

Finally, in the third movement, she breaks into all types of dances. There are traces of the Juba dance, you hear a little blues and a little jazz, as well as various old African dances. And then you suddenly hear those Romantic influences again as well. This was all part of who Price was: She was trained in classical style and understood and pulled from past composers, but she also very expertly pulled from her own country—not just America, but Black America as well, because there was a distinction at that time. She celebrated her culture, and she put it into the music. This is what we all should have been thinking then and now, that all types of music can live together harmoniously and deserve to be respected and considered valuable.

Q: You have a work by Joel Thompson on your program. Thompson gained significant attention for his work The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, and much of his music centers around identity and activism. Can you talk about your relationship with his compositions?
A: My inspiration for programming Thompson was very personal. He won the Sphinx Medal of Excellence in 2023, and since I was one of the winners in 2022, they asked me to perform one of his works at the ceremony. I got to meet him and he is such a great man, but also an amazing composer. A theme with me is that the music comes first, the story second—so, the music has to speak for itself and, in this case, it was beautiful. I began looking at more of his music after that and this movement I have programmed is just shocking. I don’t want to give too much away, but the storyline is the connection right in 2020 when he wrote it, between Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and others whose lives were taken by police brutality. He even spells out the names of the men in musical notes at various points. He somehow created music so reflective of his heart and soul and the emotions everyone felt at that time. I find myself on the brink of tears every time I play it.

Q: In a recent interview with The Classical Life, you spoke about the importance of connecting with yourself and evaluating what success looks like on your own terms. What does success look like for you at this point in your career, and how has that shifted in recent years?
A: It’s really interesting to consider this idea of “success” because people often look from the outside in and tell me now I am so successful—I’m performing everywhere, I’m teaching at great schools. But the question for me always becomes, was I not successful before? Today I’m doing what I’ve always dreamed of: I love being able to teach at places like the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute, to have access to new talent, and to have a performance career. But, truthfully, I was doing that before, too. Before these jobs, I had a private studio where I taught students, which was very fulfilling, and I wasn’t performing as much, but I was still performing music I loved, so, to me, I felt successful then.

Ultimately, the only thing that matters is how you view yourself independently. If you’re constantly comparing yourself to those around you, you’ll never feel like you’ve arrived. That’s in part because when we achieve one standard, we are looking for the next one. And we should always be striving for more, but the question is, how are you going to accept the journey? Are you going to say, “I’m never there, I haven’t achieved real success until I get to X…” But getting there is elusive because we never really get there. People who think that way are never satisfied.

I believe in and have tried to find a sense of balance by setting realistic goals for myself wherever I’m at in life at that time, and then pushing to try to achieve those goals, big or small. And then you have to look at your own life and journey and celebrate each thing you achieve as you move forward. And wherever you end up, be proud of having gotten to where you are, because that’s what makes you you.

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