February 15, 2017

The Louisville Orchestra’s annual Festival of American Music was launched last spring as the culmination of two seasons of thoughtfully stimulating programming in which new and homegrown music had played an increasingly central part. One of galvanizing young Music Director Teddy Abrams’s most ambitious signature initiatives to date, the festival returns this April for a second adventurous season, celebrating the glorious diversity of the past century of New World composition in three programs, held in the concert hall and beyond. As Arts-Louisville concluded after last year’s inaugural festival: “The orchestra, specifically this orchestra, is a living, breathing, evolving, and relevant art form.”

In Program 1, “Maverick: A Celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas,” eminent guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas – one of the great champions of new American composition and a key mentor to Abrams – conducts his own music and that of Copland and Gershwin. Abrams, on the same program, takes the podium for music of Stravinsky, Copland, Bernstein, Mason Bates and John Adams (April 15). In Program 2, “American Journey,” Abrams premieres excerpts from his own one-act opera-in-progress The Greatest, a grand-scale, genre-straddling tribute to late Louisville boxing legend Muhammad Ali, alongside works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Herbie Hancock and Lou Harrison (April 28 & 29). Presented as part of the innovative LG&E Music Without Borders series, which takes the orchestra into non-traditional neighborhood venues, a third program sees the Music Director conduct new music by eight contemporary American composers – seven of them women – highlighted by the world premiere of a new commission from Louisville native Rachel Grimes (April 20 & 21). By way of an upbeat to the festival, iconoclastic pop polymath Ben Folds joins Abrams and the orchestra for a program of his own music, crowned by an account of his celebrated Piano Concerto (April 14).

Such bold programming reflects the extraordinary level of trust that Abrams fosters between the orchestra and its audience. Commissioning new American music to expand and revitalize the orchestral literature has long been central to Louisville’s mission, and in the past three years, Abrams has not only commissioned and premiered a wealth of new American compositions, but has also, through increased focus on truly innovative community engagement, succeeded in inspiring genuine excitement about it. He explains:

“I think we’re building our identity around these festivals. This is the center of the orchestra and who we are. What we’re doing is defining what an American orchestra – even American music – can be. This is the direction we need to go and we need to expand it: involve more living composers, commission more music, do things that you would never find together on the same program. You know: don’t just sneak a new piece into a program here and there, and hope that people take it down like some kind of medicine, but actually celebrate it, go big.

“We’re bringing icons in, like Ben Folds and Michael Tilson Thomas, but we’re also introducing composers that most people in Louisville will not have heard of – maybe most people even in the general music world have not heard of – yet who I’m convinced are some of the most talented people alive. They need to have their voices heard.”

“Maverick: A Celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas”

The festival’s opening program honors one of the most iconic figures on the contemporary American music scene. Eleven-time Grammy Award-winner Michael Tilson Thomas not only serves as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra, but is also a noted composer and producer of multimedia projects dedicated to music education and the re-imagination of the concert experience. Abrams, who began studying conducting and musicianship with Thomas at the age of twelve, confesses: “I wouldn’t be in Louisville without Michael Tilson Thomas, that’s very safe to say, and without him I wouldn’t be doing programming like this.

He and his mentor share conducting duties in the “Maverick” program. Thomas leads the orchestra in performances of two of his own works: Agnegram, the title and themes of which play on the name of San Francisco-based arts patron Agnes Albert, and Grace, written to celebrate the 70th birthday of his own mentor Leonard Bernstein. He also conducts Copland’s Our Town, music from the film score the composer wrote for the screen adaptation of the Thornton Wilder play by that name, and two works by George Gershwin: the audience favorite, An American in Paris, and “Promenade (Walking the Dog)” from the composer’s score to the Astaire and Rogers vehicle Shall We Dance, with the multi-talented Abrams on clarinet.

To round out the program, the versatile Abrams joins fellow composer-pianist Sebastian Chang at the keyboard for Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude, a playful take on the familiar song “Happy Birthday To You,” and takes the podium for the premiere of a new Greeting Prelude by Mason Bates, as well as for masterworks by three of the composers Thomas has done most to champion – Copland’s Orchestral Variations, Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, and John Adams’s exuberant Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

The Louisville Orchestra is grateful to Brown-Forman Corporation for its support of the full Classics Season, Fifth Third Bank as the Festival of American Music sponsor, and LG&E for their support of the Music Without Borders Series.

“American Journey”

A prolific and award-winning composer, Abrams has already written some 15 works for the Louisville Orchestra. The centerpiece of the festival’s final program is the world premiere of three excerpts from The Greatest, his forthcoming tribute to Muhammad Ali, the peerless Louisville boxer whose death on June 3 sparked a worldwide outpouring of appreciation, as much for his work as an activist, moral beacon, and humanitarian as for his incomparable achievements in the ring. Abrams explains:

“As a Louisvillian and a musician, I wanted to offer an artistic tribute to the legendary figure who has inspired, influenced, and captivated humanity in the modern era. Learning from Ali’s story and message, I’ve found both personal inspiration and a call for the world to be a far more peaceful, empathetic, and tolerant place.”

Originally intended to premiere complete at the festival, the work is still in progress, and will not be heard in its entirety until later this year. This is because the more Abrams immersed himself in Ali’s life and legacy, the more strongly he felt the need to delve deeply into race and the other social issues so critical to Ali and still so painfully pressing today. Instead of the piece he had first envisioned, in the vein of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, now the Music Director is in the process of creating a far longer and more ambitious work, a one-act opera or pageant whose unusual hybrid is reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s epic MASS, which he and the orchestra performed last season “with coherence, humanity, and winning theatricality” (Wall Street Journal).

Drawing on musical styles from jazz to rap, the three excerpts are “Still I Rise” and “Song of the Broad-Axe,” based on poems by Maya Angelou and Walt Whitman, respectively; and “Float Rumble Rest.” Performing the songs will be Grammy Award-winning soprano Susan Narucki and local Louisville hip hop artist and educator Jecorey “1200” Arthur. Arthur’s previous collaborations with Abrams and the orchestra include last year’s sensational Independence Day Waterfront concert, which attracted an audience of 35,000. The excerpts will be performed in partnership with Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center, to which Abrams also dedicated all the proceeds of his first tribute to the boxer (Float Rumble Rest for piano and electric guitar) earlier in 2016.

The excerpts from The Greatest are part of a wide-ranging program beginning with Samuel Barber’s rousing Overture to The School for Scandal, the composer’s first composition for full orchestra, written while he was studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (Abrams is also a Curtis alumnus). Lou Harrison wrote his Suite for Symphonic Strings for the Louisville Orchestra, which gave its premiere in 1961; the work is an assemblage of older materials that show the composer’s characteristic mix of Western forms and Asian influences. Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island gives members of the orchestra a rare opportunity to flex their improvisatory muscles, as they play a version of the jazz standard directly from Hancock’s charts (consisting of just chords and a melody) rather than from a preexisting arrangement. Soprano Susan Narucki joins the orchestra once again for four selections from Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider, who has been recognized as “a potentially significant voice on the American music landscape” (Philadelphia Inquirer). Released on disc in 2010, Snider’s “quietly devastating” (Pitchfork) hour-long orchestral song cycle was a Billboard bestseller that was named the year’s best classical album by Time Out New York, and as one of its “Top Five Genre-Defying Albums” by NPR.

Music Without Borders

One of Abrams’s many initiatives to expand the orchestra’s reach, the LG&E Music Without Borders series takes the ensemble directly into non-traditional neighborhood venues, such as churches and synagogues. To date, many of these have been sold to capacity and filled by people – nearly 50% of attendees – who have never heard the orchestra before. For festival concerts at The Temple, Kentucky’s oldest and largest Jewish congregation, and at the Ogle Center in New Albany, Indiana, Abrams leads performances of music by eight contemporary American composers – seven of them women. Anchoring the program is the world premiere of newly commissioned arrangements of movements from Book of Leaves by Louisville native Rachel Grimes. Likened by Pitchfork to “a warm embrace from an old friend,” Grimes’s suite was originally scored for piano; arrangements of three of the other movements premiered at last year’s festival. Written for the orchestra by Hollywood composer Noah Sorota, another native of Louisville, as a tribute to their shared hometown, The Bluegrass debuted earlier this fall at the orchestra’s season-launching Classics Kickoff concert. Likewise Run for the Roses by Rene Orth, Opera Philadelphia’s new composer-in-residence, was commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra last year for A Curtis Suite, when it impressed Arts-Louisville as “fast and furious … Fun.” Death of the Poet is the work of TJ Cole, who at just 23 has already been commissioned by the Baltimore and Cincinnati Symphonies. Starburst, a work for string orchestra by New York-born and based violinist/composer Jessie Montgomery, reflects, according to Jed Distler writing for Classics Today, “Today’s fashionable motoric, pop-oriented, post-minimalist style, albeit with memorable melodies, structural discipline, and not one cliché in the book. Think Ernest Bloch meets John Adams: that’s a compliment!” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, and newly minted MacArthur “Genius,” Julia Wolfe, wrote her searing and frantically kinetic Big Beautiful Dark and Scary in response to being a close witness, along with her young children, to the 9/11 tragedy. “This is how life feels right now,” Wolfe wrote at the time of the work’s premiere in April 2002. Rounding out the program are Island Rhythms, by the senior stateswoman of American composers, Joan Tower, and Masquerade, by London-born, Grammy-nominated composer Anna Clyne.

Ben Folds

To whet audiences’ appetites for the festival, Ben Folds – the chart-topping American pianist, singer-songwriter, and producer known for his sophisticated tunes and irreverent lyrics – joins Abrams and the orchestra for a program of his music. Besides selected hit songs, this will include his Piano Concerto, in which he himself will undertake the solo role. NPR writes:

“At times, the 21-minute piece pays homage to 20th-century American composers like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, the American songbook and Broadway musicals. It’s lavish and complex, and in brief stretches it verges into dissonant and arrhythmic territory that’s as challenging as anything Folds has written. But it’s also undeniably a Ben Folds piece – complete with dexterous melodic runs and pop harmonies.”

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About the Louisville Orchestra

Established in 1937 through the combined efforts of the Louisville business community, and later, Mayor Charles Farnsley and conductor Robert Whitney, the Louisville Orchestra is a cornerstone of the Louisville arts community. With the launch of First Edition Recordings in 1947, it became the first American orchestra to own a recording label. Six years later it received a Rockefeller grant of $500,000 to commission, record, and premiere 20th-century music by living composers, thereby earning a place on the international circuit and an invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall. In 2001, the Louisville Orchestra received the Leonard Bernstein Award for Excellence in Educational Programming, presented annually to a North American orchestra. Continuing its commitment to new music, the Louisville Orchestra has earned 19 ASCAP awards for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music, and was also recently awarded large grants from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the National Endowment for the Arts, both for the purpose of producing, manufacturing and marketing its historic First Edition Recordings collections. Over the years, the orchestra has performed for prestigious events at the White House, Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and on tour in Mexico City. The feature-length, Gramophone Award-winning documentary Music Makes a City (2010) chronicles the Louisville Orchestra’s founding years. More information is available at the orchestra’s newly redesigned website.

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Louisville Orchestra: Festival of American Music II

Except where noted, all concerts take place at Whitney Hall under the leadership of Music Director Teddy Abrams.

April 14
Ben Folds Concert
Ben Folds: Piano Concerto (with Folds, piano)
Ben Folds: works TBA

April 15
Festival of American Music,
Program 1: “Maverick: A Celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas”
With Michael Tilson Thomas, guest conductor
LEONARD BERNSTEIN: Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (Abrams conducts)
AARON COPLAND: Orchestral Variations (Abrams conducts)
MASON BATES: Greeting Prelude (new commission; Abrams conducts)
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Grace (vocal soloist, with piano, TBA; Thomas conducts)
JOHN ADAMS: Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Abrams conducts)
IGOR STRAVINSKY: Greeting Prelude (with Abrams and Sebastian Chang, piano duo)
COPLAND: Our Town (Thomas conducts)
GERSHWIN: An American in Paris (Thomas conducts)
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Agnegram (Thomas conducts)
GERSHWIN: Promenade “Walking the Dog” (with Abrams, clarinet; Thomas conducts)

April 20: The Temple

April 21: Ogle Center in New Albany, Indiana
Music Without Borders + Festival of American Music
NOAH SOROTA: The Bluegrass
TJ COLE: Death of the Poet
JESSIE MONTGOMERY: Starburst
RENE ORTH: Run for the Roses
RACHEL GRIMES: Selections from Book of Leaves (world premiere of Louisville Orchestra commission)
JULIA WOLFE: Big Beautiful Dark and Scary
JOAN TOWER: Island Rhythms
ANNA CLYNE: Masquerade

April 28 & 29
Festival of American Music
Program 2: “American Journey”
SAMUEL BARBER: Overture to The School for Scandal
SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER: Four songs from Penelope (with soprano Susan Narucki)
1.“The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved”

  • “The Lotus Eater”
  • “Dead Friend”
  • “Baby Teeth, Bones and Bullets”

HERBIE HANCOCK: Cantaloupe Island
LOU HARRISON: Suite for Symphonic Strings (excerpts)

  • “Estampie”
  • Chorale, “Et in Arcadio Ego”

III. Double fugue, “In Honor of Heracles”
TEDDY ABRAMS: “Still I Rise,” “Song of the Broad-Axe,” and “Float Rumble Rest” (with soprano Susan Narucki and Jecorey “1200” Arthur, hip hop artist) from The Greatest (world premiere)

NB:  All artists and programs subject to change.

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© 21C Media Group, February 2017