The Louisville Orchestra Virtual Edition Presents: Homecomings: Musical Journeys of Uncommon Folk

Teddy Abrams, conductor
Sarah Jarosz, vocalist
Craig Wagner, guitarist

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

When you hear the phrase “modern folk music” who does your mind conjure up as giants in that style of writing, at least in the past 75 years or so? Joan Baez? James Taylor? Peter, Paul, and Mary? Sure, but within the past few decades there have been new folk singers/songwriters making a mark for themselves; people like Michael Franti and Gillian Welch certainly come to mind. Another person making her way to that pantheon of writers/performers is Louisville Orchestra’s guest artist, the recent Grammy nominee Sarah Jarosz.  

Folk music has its origins in the music that is commonly handed down from generation to generation, steeped in rural melodies, and often learned through listening rather than reading. As the families scatter into the four corners of the globe, so do their folk songs and thus we have dozens, if not hundreds, of styles of folk music.

The evening started with Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, a suite of six short piano pieces. Having traveled and lived in the area of Transylvania, the Hungarian-born Bartok was inspired by the music of the area to write this well-known suite.

While originally written for piano, it was soon transposed for a small orchestral ensemble. As much as I enjoy piano ensembles, there is just something about wanting to dance to the playing of an orchestra. Such was the case this evening.

Stick Dance (“Jocul cu bâta”), Waistband Dance (“Brâul”), Stamping Dance (“Pe loc”), Hornpipe Dance (“Buciumeana”), Romanian Polka (“Poarga româneasca”) and lastly Quick Dance (“Maruntel”) are all meant to be played in quick succession and it can almost leave one breathless. Fortunately, our Orchestra had the stride well in hand and at an enjoyable clip.

While most of the pieces have a lightness about them, the third, Hornpipe Dance, was a bit more heavy, almost contemplative. All in all, a very enjoyable interpretation of the suite.

From Transylvania, we moved to the homeland of our next artist’s mother, Peru. While Gabriela Lena Frank grew up as American, she was drawn to the music of her ancestral home. Inspired by the writings of José Maria Arguedas, Ms. Frank set out to recreate his ideas and beliefs while embracing the fiery rhythms and melodies of Peru.

Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, a suite of six pieces, could be considered a tone poem, each piece giving insight to the life, culture and environment of the Andes Mountains.

While the suite is written for strings, the pieces are named for instruments, instrumental styles, and folklore that are commonplace in the Peruvian culture. As Mr. Abrams began, he gave a spinning motion to the strings. I can see why. The whole of the suite requires quick action and laser focused attention to detail.

Toyos, written with the toyo panpipe in mind, is a strong beginning and sets the pace. Tarqueada is quick, forceful, and has a sound that is reminiscent of the Orient. Himno de Zampoñas, using the zampoña pipe as inspiration, is filled with a pulsating sound and a slight division of melody. Chasqui, named for the Incan runner, permeates the stage with richness from the cello and basses. While Canto de Velorio didn’t have singing, as its title would suggest, I can assure you that our Orchestra’s string ensemble were definitely vocalizing. Perhaps a little more somber than the other pieces, Canto allowed for our first and second chair violins and cello to shine bright. The last piece, Coqueteos, is exactly as its title states, romantic and festive. Celebratory and exciting, it was a fantastic end to the suite.

Having met Sarah Jarosz at Forecastle a few years ago, Mr. Abrams asked her if she would be interested in collaborating with him and the Orchestra some time. Having not done so, she happily obliged and soon the two, along with arranger and friend Gabriel Globus-Hoenich, were able to put the songs together for this evening’s concert.

While skilled in performing her songs using a guitar or mandolin, throughout the evening you would have thought that she’d been singing with orchestras the whole of her career. She was easy, affable and laid back and I dare say she was having a great time.

Featuring nine of her songs with an orchestral treatment, it was an entertaining and fun evening. She kicked off her set with “Eve”, arranged by Mr. Globus-Hoenich, the gentle song was filled with the usual suspects as well as a drum kit and tubular bells. “Maggie”, arranged by Mr. Abrams, featured a memorable horn solo, but it was perhaps a little much. I believe it could have been softened a bit.

As Ms. Jarosz removed her guitar, she shared that this was the first time that she had performed “in public” in a year. One would not have guessed.

Guest guitarist Craig Wagner provided a wonderful fill for the next selection, “Orange and Blue”, which is featured on Sarah’s album, World on the Ground.

“What Do I Do”, featuring lovely clarinet and oboe solos led the way to a just as sweet and melodious “Hometown”.

When National Public Radio’s Morning Edition put out a call to artists to write a song inspired by the recent pandemic, Sarah answered with “Up in the Clouds”. Teddy’s arrangement adds a tinge of jazz influence and gives the already lovely song more depth and feel. I think she nailed the feeling.

Rounding out the evening we are treated to “Pay It No Mind”, “Build Me Up from Bones” and the bold “Johnny”. 

In closing the evening, Teddy shared how music is a power that brings people and events together. He also thanked Gabriel for the charts. 

I couldn’t agree more, sir.

Bravi Tutti!!!

The Louisville Orchestra Virtual Edition Presents: Homecomings: Musical Journeys of Uncommon Folk

March 6, 2021


Louisville Orchestra

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years of experience in the classical arts.