October 17, 2017
Since launching his tenure at the Louisville Orchestra four seasons ago, 30-year-old Teddy Abrams – the youngest Music Director of a major American orchestra – has shown himself to be not only a dynamo on the podium, but also a prolific and award-winning composer with an extraordinary commitment to community outreach. On November 4, he leads the orchestra in the world premiere of perhaps his most ambitious composition to date. The Greatest: Muhammad Ali is an immersive, genre-straddling orchestral experience that fuses music with poetry, narration, video, and dance in tribute to the late great Louisville boxing legend. Its first performance brings together local Louisville hip hop artist and educator Jecorey “1200” Arthur, who creates the title role, with fellow vocalists Rhiannon Giddens, just named a 2017 MacArthur fellow, and Grammy-nominated baritone Jubilant Sykes, also making his directorial debut. Engaging the local community in an exhilarating, interdisciplinary, multicultural salute to one of its most beloved heroes, the new work serves as a reminder that, as Arts-Louisville recently concluded: “The orchestra, specifically this orchestra, is a living, breathing, evolving, and relevant art form.” Small wonder that NPR Music advises: “To help boost interest in classical music, look no further than Teddy Abrams.”
Last June, the death of Muhammad Ali 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. Nowhere was his loss more deeply felt than in Louisville, where the peerless boxer was born, raised, and cherished as a native son. Characteristically, Abrams was one of the first to commemorate Ali’s death in music, when, as the New York Times reported, he “led an impromptu tribute to Ali, playing ‘Amazing Grace’ at a makeshift memorial outside Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center.” His next offering was Float Rumble Rest for piano and electric guitar, created and recorded with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Yet Abrams was still keen to do more. The further he 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 so painfully pressing today. He 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.”
These seeds bear fruit in The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, from which three excerpts – “Still I Rise,” set to Maya Angelou, “Song of the Broad-Axe,” to Walt Whitman, and “Float Rumble Rest” – were previewed at the orchestra’s Second Annual Festival of American Music earlier this year. Now the work will finally be heard in its entirety. Anchored by Abrams and the orchestra, its first performance marks the return – not only as vocalist, but also as director – of Jubilant Sykes, who headlined Louisville’s account of Bernstein’s MASS two years ago, when it impressed the Wall Street Journal with its “coherence, humanity, and winning theatricality.” Also returning is Jecorey “1200” Arthur, who graced the Louisville Orchestra’s sensational 2014 Independence Day Waterfront concert, which attracted an audience of 35,000. They will be joined by Rhiannon Giddens, winner of a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and frontwoman of the Grammy Award-winning African-American stringband known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, in her Louisville Orchestra debut. The three vocal soloists head an outstanding team of collaborators that also includes narrator Olivia Dawson, familiar from the hit Fox TV series Empire; dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers, of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; video artist Marlon Johnson, whose credits include 2 Fast 2 Furious and CBS TV’s The Amazing Race; and Cuban-American choreographer Rosie Herrera, the artistic director of the Rosie Herrera Dance Theater in Miami.
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The premiere highlights the Louisville Orchestra’s 80th anniversary season, which has already seen the orchestra go straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Traditional Chart with the release on September 22 of All In, its first new recording in almost three decades. On the heels of the new release, Abrams and the orchestra joined superstar pianist Yuja Wang for a program of Russian masterworks that gave Arts-Louisville “a renewed faith that classical music is indeed still relevant and necessary in our society.” The season-launching concert kicked off a characteristically adventurous lineup that includes “Why Beethoven?”, which offers an innovative and eye-opening approach to a timeless European classic (Oct 14). Reconnecting the orchestra with its remarkable past while reestablishing it as the cornerstone of today’s vibrant Louisville music scene, Abrams’s “tireless advocacy and community outreach” are, notes Listen magazine, “putting the history-rich Louisville Orchestra – and classical music – back on the map.” Click here for a complete schedule of the Louisville Orchestra’s 2017–18 season.
About the Louisville Orchestra
Established in 1937 through the combined efforts of Louisville 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.
High-resolution photos are available here.
Louisville Orchestra premieres The Greatest: Muhammad Ali by Teddy Abrams
Nov 4 at 8pm
Kentucky Center for the Arts
Teddy Abrams, Music Director
Jubilant Sykes, director and vocalist
Jecorey Arthur, Ali
Rhiannon Giddens, vocalist
Olivia Dawson, narrator
Matt Wallace, actor
Norman Seawright, actor
Brandon Ragland, dancer
Lew Winstead, dancer
Craig Wagner, guitar
Nate Farrington, bass
Gabe Globus-Hoenich, drums
Martine Kei Green-Rogers, dramaturg
Marlon Johnson, video artist
Rosie Herrera, choreographer
Claire Friday, stage manager
Jesse Alford, lighting design
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© 21C Media Group, October 2017