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Louisville Orchestra Celebrates Musical Diversity and New Experiments in Two-Part Festival of American Music (March 25 & 26; April 8 & 9)

This spring, the Louisville Orchestra celebrates the glorious diversity of the past hundred years of New World composition with a two-part Festival of American Music (March 25 & 26; April 8 & 9). For the orchestra and its galvanizing young Music Director Teddy Abrams, this marks both an end and a beginning: the culmination of two seasons of thoughtfully stimulating programming in which new and homegrown music has played an increasingly central part, the festival also represents the first installment of what they hope will become an enduring annual tradition.

Highlights include collaborations with DJ and electronica composer Mason Bates and Chase Morrin, who joins the orchestra for the world premiere of his improvisatory new piano concerto; a bluegrass-inspired collaborative composition from Aoife O’Donovan, Jeremy Kittel, and Abrams himself; new music from young composers Samuel Adams and Kentucky native Rachel Grimes; jazz classics by George Antheil and Louis Prima; and canonical masterworks by Aaron Copland, John Adams, and Charles Ives, whose music will be heard alongside some of the traditional American songs that inspired it.

A high point of Abrams’s tenure to date, such bold programming reflects the extraordinary level of trust that he has fostered 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 over the past two years, Abrams has not only commissioned and premiered a wealth of new American composition, but has also, through increased focus on truly innovative community engagement, succeeded in inspiring genuine excitement about it. He explains:

“Our Festival of American Music is especially important because this will become an annual tradition in Louisville and will be a signature part of what we do. It’s a real celebration of our country’s musical diversity. We’re exploring the whole spectrum of American music through the lens of an orchestra, from a masterpiece like Copland’s Third Symphony to world premieres, experimental improvisation, electronic music, bluegrass, and everything in between. The two programs are extremely ambitious, and I think our emphasis on diversity and new experience is the way of the future – this is what audiences should want to see and demand from their orchestra.

“We couldn’t have mounted this festival without having won the trust of our audiences. With very careful, creative programming over the past two seasons, they’ve come to expect and look forward to the new works we commission and create especially for them. They appreciate Brahms and Beethoven as much as ever, but have reached the point where they recognize new music as the most important part of our work. I am extremely proud of this adventurous and open spirit from both our audiences and musicians in Louisville.”

Presented in two parts, the festival comprises two full-length evening programs, each of which will be previewed in shorter form at a matinee concert on the preceding day.

Part One: Ives, jazz, bluegrass and more
Part One showcases three recent works by young American composers. The orchestra celebrates local talent with the world premiere performances of new orchestral arrangements by Kentucky native Rachel Grimes of three movements from her suite Book of Leaves (2009). Originally scored for piano, this was likened by Pitchfork to “a warm embrace from an old friend.”

A bluegrass-infused song cycle for solo vocals, violin, and orchestra, Bull Frogs Croon (2015) is the work of Music Director Abrams, an award-winning composer himself, in collaboration with celebrated singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, whose ethereal vocals may be heard on the Grammy Award-winning Goat Rodeo Sessions, and composer-violinist Jeremy Kittel, who recently joined Abrams and the orchestra for the world premiere of his concerto Big Fiddle. Based on the poetry of Oregon Poet Laureate Peter Sears, their song cycle is, Abrams explains, “a work in the tradition of vocal composers like Richard Strauss, Mahler or Schubert, but composed in a truly collaborative form”; at its premiere last year, this proved “strikingly beautiful” (Jacksonville Review).

Recognized as “a composer with a personal voice and keen imagination” (New York Times), Samuel Adams currently serves as Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, where its premiere received a standing ovation, his Radial Play (2014) impressed the New York Times as “a pulsing, engrossing piece, … [that] unfolds with a restless, narrative sweep in a cram-packed, pungent harmonic language.”

These new compositions share the program with four earlier and quintessentially American works. Even now that Charles Ives has at last been recognized as the grandfather of American experimentalism, his music continues to present challenges for the unsuspecting listener, who must grapple with the dissonance and apparent chaos of his sound world. To help Louisville’s audiences find their bearings, before performing Ives’s “Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day,” Abrams looks forward to leading an audience singalong of some of the traditional hymns and songs heard within it. It is with such fragments of Americana that Ives depicts a year in the life of his boyhood hometown in New England Holidays (1913), of which “Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day” is the final movement.

Commissioned by swing legend Benny Goodman, and written after the composer’s travels in Brazil, Aaron Copland’s lyrical Clarinet Concerto (1945–47) draws on the influences of jazz and the music of Latin America. The Louisville Orchestra’s performance will feature Abrams as soloist, marking the multi-talented Music Director’s first appearances with the orchestra on clarinet.

It is also Abrams who made Louisville’s original orchestral arrangement of “Sing, Sing, Sing” (1936). A smash hit for Goodman, the iconic swing classic was the work of trumpeter, bandleader, singer, and composer Louis Prima – familiar as the voice of King Louis in The Jungle Book – who put a Vegas twist on New Orleans jazz.

Like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, A Jazz Symphony (1925, rev. 1955) by New Jersey-born George Antheil is one of many attempts by composers of the jazz age to synthesize the New World form with Europe’s symphonic tradition. Drawing on Tin Pan Alley, Afro-Cuban jazz and more, Antheil’s work – notable for its harmonic and rhythmic complexity – deserves far greater exposure. Click here to see Teddy Abrams conducting the conclusion of A Jazz Symphony.

Part Two: From masterpieces to the Mothership
Part Two pairs two examples from the vanguard of contemporary composition with two bona fide 20th-century classics. The orchestra is thrilled to present the world premiere performances of a new Louisville commission Two and a Half Songs – Concerto for Improvising by Chase Morrin – with the composer himself at the piano. At just 22, Morrin – “a jazz piano phenom … [who’s] scary good” (San Diego Union Tribune) – has already accrued a myriad of honors including awards from ASCAP, the Jazz Education Network, DownBeat, and the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Similarly, Heinz Medal-winner Mason Bates is America’s second most-performed living composer, and currently serves as inaugural composer-in-residence of the Kennedy Center. Viewed by an online audience of almost two million when it was premiered by the YouTube Symphony, his groundbreaking work Mothership (2011) features sections for improvisation, and is written for orchestra with laptop, speakers, and on-stage monitors. The composer himself will join the orchestra on electronica for Louisville’s upcoming performance. Click here to hear Bates introduce the world premiere of Mothership.

Like Ives, Pulitzer Prize-winner John Adams was born and raised in New England. Although his Harmonielehre (1985), which takes its name from a treatise by the Viennese-born Schoenberg, has one foot in the Old World, it has been recognized as “the work of an artist bursting with the excitement of new horizons” (San Francisco Chronicle). Adams calls the piece “a large, three-movement work for orchestra that marries the developmental techniques of Minimalism with the harmonic and expressive world of fin-de-siècle late Romanticism,” and the San Francisco Chronicle explains: “For those of us who feel that there is no other living American composer who has forged such a compelling blend of past and present, Harmonielehre is where it all begins.

It was perhaps the Brooklyn-born Copland who did most to create an identifiably American sound, so it is fitting that the Louisville Orchestra’s festival should draw to a close with his epic Third Symphony (1946), which was designed, as the composer explained, to “reflect the euphoric spirit” of the post-war nation. Concluding with a final movement based on his stirring Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland’s symphony has become, as Leonard Bernstein put it, “an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.”

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 collection. 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.

Click here to download high-resolution photos.


Louisville Orchestra: Festival of American Music

All concerts take place at Whitney Hall under the leadership of Music Director Teddy Abrams.


March 25
Louis Prima (arr. Abrams): Sing, Sing, Sing
Rachel Grimes: “My Dear Companion,” “Corner Room,” and “Mossgrove” from Book of Leaves (world premiere of
arrangements for orchestra)
Aoife O’Donovan/Jeremy Kittel/Teddy Abrams: Bull Frogs Croon (with Aoife O’Donovan, vocals; Jeremy Kittel, violin)
Traditional: “The Shining Shore,” “Federal Street,” “The Sweet By and By,” and “Duke Street”
Charles Ives: “Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day” from New England Holidays
Aaron Copland: Clarinet Concerto (with Teddy Abrams, clarinet)

March 26
Louis Prima (arr. Abrams): Sing, Sing, Sing
George Antheil: A Jazz Symphony
Samuel Carl Adams: Radial Play
Rachel Grimes: Selections from Book of Leaves: “My Dear Companion,” “Corner Room,” and “Mossgrove”
Aoife O’Donovan/Jeremy Kittel/Teddy Abrams: Bull Frogs Croon (with Aoife O’Donovan, vocals; Jeremy Kittel, violin)
Traditional: “The Shining Shore,” “Federal Street,” “The Sweet By and By,” and “Duke Street”
Charles Ives: “Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day” from New England Holidays
Aaron Copland: Clarinet Concerto (with Teddy Abrams, clarinet)


April 8
Chase Morrin: Two and a Half Songs – Concerto for Improvising (world premiere; with Chase Morrin, piano)
Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3 (two movements)

April 9
John Adams: Harmonielehre, movement I
Mason Bates: Mothership (with Mason Bates, electronica)
Chase Morrin: Two and a Half Songs – Concerto for Improvising (with Chase Morrin, piano)
Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3

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© 21C Media Group, March 2016

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