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Louisville Orchestra Launches Third Annual Festival of American Music

Now in its 80th anniversary season – and its fourth under the galvanizing leadership of Teddy Abrams, the youngest Music Director of a major American orchestra – the Louisville Orchestra embarks this spring on its third annual Festival of American Music, a celebration of homegrown composition, cross-genre collaboration, and local Louisville talent. The first of the two main programs, “Kentucky Classics,” puts the emphasis on local musicians and Kentucky-centered music, with singer-songwriters Joan Shelley, Tyrone Cotton, and Lizzie No, and fiddler Michael Cleveland with his band Flamekeeper, along with a performance of the Four Dance Episodes from Aaron’s Copland’s classic ballet Rodeo. The second program, “PLAY,” broadens the perspective to include a wider range of contemporary American composers. Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe’s riSE and fLY opens the concert, followed by Natural History by Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon, featuring a Native American drumming ensemble; and finally a set of seven songs for orchestra written by Jim James, the frontman of Louisville’s alt-rock band My Morning Jacket, in collaboration with Abrams. Both programs will also be surrounded by community events, including a collaboration with the Louisville Zoo, an “Abrams’s Kids” event leading up to the first performance, and a matinee concert in the “Coffee Concert Series” prior to the second, which will include the Gordon and James works.

Third Annual Festival of American Music

Celebrating the glorious diversity of the past hundred years of New World composition, Louisville’s annual Festival of American Music is one of Abrams’s most ambitious signature initiatives to date. It was the festival’s inaugural edition that prompted Arts-Louisville to conclude: “The orchestra, specifically this orchestra, is a living, breathing, evolving, and relevant art form.”

This spring, the two-part festival returns for a third pioneering season. Part 1, “Kentucky Classics,” celebrates American roots with music featuring both Kentucky-centered music and Kentucky-based composers and performers (March 24). Backed by the orchestra, performers include singer-songwriter Joan Shelley, another Louisville native whose “crystal-clear voice meditates on the spaces between people, in arrangements that evoke Bacharach and David and African blues influences as much as acid-folk” (UK Independent); Louisville native and singer-songwriter Tyrone Cotton, with a unique style influenced by classical guitar studies at Western Kentucky University and a period of jazz immersion in Boston; neo-folk singer and harpist Lizzie No, “an exceptionally talented artist with a gift for making an age-old music sound fresh and relevant again” (Americana UK); and Michael Cleveland, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s most awarded fiddler, with his band Flamekeeper. Finally, the program is completed by Four Dance Episodes from the high-octane ballet Rodeo by Aaron Copland, also one of the composers featured on the orchestra’s recent best-selling album All In.

The annual Festival of American Music is a community-wide celebration, and leading up to the first performance are two youth-centered community events. On March 22 is a meeting of “Abrams’s Kids,” a youth leadership mentoring program launched in 2015 that allows up to 15 high school juniors and seniors, handpicked by their music teachers, to meet monthly with the Music Director and LO Director of Education Deanna Hoying to discuss careers in the arts. The program also provides opportunities for students to attend rehearsals, meet guest artists and job shadow. Then on March 24 Abrams will judge the Louisville Zoo’s “Trashformation: A Trash-to-Treasure Art Contest” event, which gives pre-K through high school students an opportunity to communicate the importance of recycling and sustainability through art. Using only recyclable items, students are asked to express or interpret “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” with their submissions. This year the Zoo is once again partnering with the Louisville Orchestra’s MakingMUSIC Landfill Orchestra program, sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, and has a category encouraging students to create playable musical instruments from recycled materials. Any student submitting a musical instrument will be invited to participate in a jam session with their instruments led by Abrams at the awards presentation press conference on March 24 at 11am. This event is part of the Zoo’s Party for the Planet: A Month-Long Celebration of the Earth, sponsored by Louisville Gas and Electric Company and Kentucky Utilities Company.

The following weekend, bringing together some of the most potent voices in contemporary American composition, is the festival’s Part 2, “PLAY” (April 7). On the program are two Louisville premieres: riSE and fLY by Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe, with percussion soloist Gabe Globus-Hoenich, who was also featured on Abrams’s The Greatest: Muhammad Ali this past fall; and Natural History by Michael Gordon. Created for 2016’s National Parks Service centennial, and premiered under Teddy Abrams’s leadership on sacred land in Oregon, Natural History explores the spiritual connection between the land and the traditions of the Klamath tribe; the Louisville performance will feature a Native American drumming ensemble. The Oregon performance was given under the auspices of the Britt Festival, of which Abrams is the Music Director, and is the subject of both a new recording on the Cantaloupe label and the documentary Symphony for Nature from Owsley Brown Presents, currently airing on PBS stations across the country. Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon are also married, and together with composer David Lang they are the founders of the acclaimed Bang on a Can organization in New York City. “PLAY” is rounded out with music by special guest artist Jim James, founding frontman of famed Louisville alt-rock band My Morning Jacket. He joins the orchestra for the world premiere performance of his own set of seven songs, written in collaboration with Abrams, including his top hits, selections from his latest album, and new material (April 7).

By way of a preview to this second festival performance, the “Coffee Concert Series” at 11am on April 6 will feature Gordon’s Natural History with the Native American ensemble and the Jim James songs, all conducted by Abrams.

As far as Abrams is concerned, Louisville’s mission is simple. In his words: “We want to become known as the most interesting orchestra on the planet.” As he says of the Festival of American Music:

“Our 2018 Festival of American Music celebrates music that was quite literally ‘grown’ and nurtured here in our country: a kind of music from the very earth of this nation. The first program features a range of modern soloists who derive inspiration and continue traditions from Kentucky’s folk and Americana genres. These soloists include Michael Cleveland, one of the most virtuosic fiddlers in history, along with the quietly powerful and beautiful voice of Joan Shelley. Ultimately these different solo sets lead to a special performance of Copland’s Rodeo, with which we will also perform the folk source material from each of the piece’s four movements.

“The second week of our Festival showcases four of the great creative forces in American music today. Julia Wolfe’s riSE and fLY is a percussion concerto inspired by homegrown, Appalachian folk percussion. Michael Gordon’s Natural History is an enormous-scale composition that I commissioned to be performed with over 150 musicians on the very edge of Crater Lake National Park, and his work is intimately constructed around a group of musicians from Oregon’s Klamath Tribe – for whom Crater Lake is a sacred place. Finally, Louisville’s world-renowned Jim James (the lead singer of My Morning Jacket) and I have been co-writing a 40-minute song cycle which will be premiered at this show. His music is very special to me – he combines a beautiful insight into the world around us with a great and readily apparent human spirit.”

All In on Decca Gold; Recent and Upcoming Performances

All In, the Louisville Orchestra’s first new recording in almost three decades, was released last September, with triple-threat Abrams appearing as conductor, composer, and clarinet soloist; the album went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Traditional Chart. The fall season also saw the world premiere of Abrams’s new genre-straddling work, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, an immersive orchestral experience with music, poetry, narration, and dance, featuring local hip hop artist Jecorey “1200” Arthur, baritone Jubilant Sykes, who also directed, and Rhiannon Giddens, frontwoman of the Grammy Award-winning African-American string band known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Coming up on March 25, Abrams will speak at Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center about the piece and the way Ali’s legacy inspired him. Another world premiere, of Sebastian Chang’s Between Heaven and Earth, was just presented a few days ago as the centerpiece of a themed concert spanning four centuries. Chang is also the orchestral arranger for the songs of Joan Shelley, Tyrone Cotton and Lizzie No in the Festival of American Music’s “Kentucky Classics” concert. 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.” NPR Music agrees: “If we’re relying on the younger generation to help boost interest in classical music, look no further than Teddy Abrams.”

For a complete schedule of the Louisville Orchestra’s 2017-2018 season, visit:

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: Third Annual Festival of American Music

Concerts take place at 8pm at the Kentucky Center for the Arts

March 24

KENTUCKY CLASSICS: Festival of American Music I

Teddy Abrams, Music Director

with Joan Shelley, singer-songwriter; Tyrone Cotton, singer-songwriter;
Lizzie No, folk singer; Michael Cleveland, fiddle

EDGAR MEYER: New Piece for Orchestra
COPLAND: Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo

April 6

Coffee Concert Series: PLAY – Festival of American Music II

Teddy Abrams, Music Director

with Gabriel Globus-Hoenich, percussionist; Native American ensemble
MICHAEL GORDON: Natural History


April 7

PLAY: Festival of American Music II

Teddy Abrams, Music Director

with Jim James, special guest; percussionists, chorus, Native American ensemble, TBA

MICHAEL GORDON: Natural History


All dates, programs, and artists are subject to change.

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© 21C Media Group, February 2018

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