Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams.
Photo courtesy of Louisville Orchestra.
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When Teddy Abrams was hired as Music Director a little over two years ago, the Louisville Orchestra was struggling to survive an extended financial crisis that threatened its very existence. It was a sad state of affairs for the once-celebrated pillar of the Louisville arts scene. Other cities had seen the dissolution of major symphonic groups, causing national media outlets from Time magazine to The New York Times to ask if the orchestra, as a form, was dying.
What a difference two seasons have made. Mr. Abrams has set a bold course indeed for the LO through collaborations with local musicians such as Ben Sollee and Will Oldham and by taking the orchestra out into the community with an aggressive schedule of concerts at churches, schools, and community centers. With the announcement of his third season, he shows no signs of slowing down in his pursuit of a vital and sustained future for the company. He is reconnecting the orchestra with the community in a meaningful way.
Highlights of the ambitious 2016-17 season include a season-opening account of Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection); concerto collaborations with such eminent artists as Yo-Yo Ma and Augustin Hadelich; a celebration entitled “Shakespeare in Music” that will accompany Louisville’s upcoming First Folio exhibition; the Louisville premiere of a new commission from Lev Zhurbin; and the world premiere of Abrams’ own new composition, Muhammad Ali Portrait, part of a two-program Festival of American Music that will also feature guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Marked by a signature mix of compelling programming and extensive community engagement, the orchestra’s partnership with Abrams is one to which Louisville audiences have responded with unbridled enthusiasm, as evidenced by a 93% increase in ticket sales since 2012-13.
In one of Abrams’ key innovations, the orchestra now launches each season with an ambitious, immersive community collaboration event. In 2014, their powerhouse performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana drew on a local cast of hundreds, “offer[ing] incontrovertible proof that Abrams [was] leading the Louisville Orchestra into the next great leg of its journey,” according to Chris Stewart, writing for Arts-Louisville.com. Likewise, last fall some 240 musicians joined forces for Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a tour de force that Abrams “endowed … with coherence, humanity, and winning theatricality” (The Wall Street Journal). Once again calling for extensive local reinforcements, this year’s offering is Mahler’s monumental Second Symphony, which, besides employing huge orchestral forces – the score calls for unusually numerous woodwinds, brass, percussion, and “the largest possible contingent of strings” – also features soprano and alto soloists, full choir, and organ. This symphony will be performed October 8.
Sharing the Louisville Orchestra’s mission of reaching the widest possible audience, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a recent Kennedy Center honoree, consistently pushes the boundaries of musical communication, be it through concerto engagements, chamber music performances, recitals, or the exchange of cultural ideas fostered by his groundbreaking organization now known as Silkroad. Ma will join the orchestra for a special performance of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor on October 30. Other concerto soloists include young German violinist Augustin Hadelich, winner of the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. Hadelich will perform Benjamin Britten’s elegiac Violin Concerto with Abrams and the orchestra on an all-English program that closes with selections from William Walton’s Façade. This is slated for March 31 and April 1.
Under Abrams’s auspices, the orchestra has undertaken interdisciplinary collaborations with a variety of local institutions, including the Louisville Ballet and the Center for Interfaith Relations. To commemorate this year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Folger Shakespeare Library has organized a tour of the Bard’s First Folio of 1623 – the first collected edition of his plays – to all 50 U.S. states as well as to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. In honor of the First Folio display at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum, “Shakespeare in Music” will take place November 18 and 19. It pairs excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet with let me tell you, a transcendent new song cycle from Denmark’s Hans Abrahamsen, featuring celebrated new-music exponent Susan Narucki as soprano soloist. Based on Paul Griffiths’ novel of the same name, the cycle explores the troubled soul of Shakespeare’s Ophelia through a first-person narrative that uses only the few words she speaks in Hamlet. As The New Yorker marveled, Abrahamsen’s setting “causes thousands of people to stop breathing for a long moment.” It was named winner of 2016’s coveted Grawemeyer Award.
An immediate success at its premiere, Dmitri Shostakovich’s evocative and politically subversive Symphony No. 11 in G minor (The Year 1905), has remained an audience favorite ever since. Incorporating revolutionary songs from the composer’s youth, the symphony has come to serve as something of a requiem for Russia’s post-Revolution generation, of which Shostakovich himself was a member. Programmed alongside the symphony is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor with soloist Andrew Tyson, who recently swept Zurich’s 2015 Géza Anda International Piano Competition. The world premiere of a new commission from the Russian violist-composer Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin, whom The New York Times calls “dizzyingly versatile,” rounds out this January 28 concert.
Commissioning new music to expand and revitalize the orchestral literature is a key component of Abrams’ appointment and has long been central to Louisville’s mission; indeed, since receiving a 1953 Rockefeller Foundation grant, the orchestra has won 19 ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music. As Abrams puts it, “Being at the forefront of music that is ‘now’, is at the heart of what the Louisville Orchestra is about.”
After two seasons of programming in which new and homegrown music have played an increasingly central part, Abrams has succeeded in fostering an extraordinary level of trust between the orchestra and its audience. It is this that gave him the confidence to launch another signature initiative: the annual Festival of American Music. In 2017, this will open with a program called “Mavericks” on April 15. It will be led by guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the great champions of new American composition and a key mentor to Abrams. Under Abrams’ own leadership, the Festival’s last concert on April 29 will showcase two world premieres: first, Louisville Concerto II, the second installment of a hit group composition project that Abrams conceived to bring together musicians from different genres with shared ties to the Louisville community; and second, his own new composition, Muhammad Ali Portrait. About his new piece, Abrams explains:
The Muhammad Ali Portrait gives us a unique opportunity to celebrate one of Louisville’s own and to collaborate with the Muhammad Ali Center. … I envision the piece as a living, breathing orchestra jazz work that fuses multiple styles including rap. While there will be text, the piece is not a narrative but rather an art piece that captures Ali’s life as a symbol. … I will collaborate with a rap artist using Ali’s words, writings and poetry as inspiration for the through-composed rap. While the rapper must work within the parameters of the music, the text he/she chooses for inspiration will be uniquely personal, so each performance of this piece will be distinctive.
Further collaboration with community partners happens in the “Classic Film and Music” event on February 25, presented in conjunction with the new film initiatives at Louisville’s recently renovated and reopened Speed Art Museum. An account of Claude Debussy’s Jeux will accompany the world premiere of a new baseball documentary from filmmaker Dennis Scholl, in partnership with another Louisville institution, the Louisville Slugger Museum. The program will also include a live orchestral performance of the score to a classic Hollywood blockbuster that is yet to be announced.
Louisville Orchestra Pops Series
The Louisville Orchestra celebrates the 20th anniversary season of Bob Bernhardt as Principal Pops Conductor with an entertaining series of orchestral pops. The auspicious 2016-2017 season will be Bernhardt’s 35th with the LO. A highlight of the season is the “Star Wars and More” concert on November 5, an evening of the music of John Williams. The holidays will sparkle with the aerial artists of Cirque Musica performing to the live orchestral Yuletide music on November 26. The series also features tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and the late David Bowie. When Time for Three, the genre-bending string trio whom Sir Simon Rattle hailed as “the future of music” took part in the closing concert of Abrams’ inaugural season, Annette Skaggs of Arts-Louisville.com marveled, “This terrific trio deserved every second of the standing ovations that they received.” The three classically trained musicians will rejoin the orchestra for an eclectic mix of ’90s hip-hop, grunge, bluegrass, and pop and classical standards when Abrams takes the podium for his first Louisville Pops concert on March 25. This concludes another full pops season for the orchestra.
LO Family Series
Families are invited to orchestrate a musical adventure with the four-concert LO Family Series presented on Saturday mornings at the Brown Theatre. It opens with the “Halloween Spooktacular” concert on October 1 and offers a kid-sized version of the Cirque Musica holiday show on November 26. The beloved “Carnival of the Animals” concert (no doubt featuring Camille Saint-Saëns’ piece of the same name) will take place on Jan 21, and the series closes with a program billed as “Heroes and Villains” on March 18. These one-hour concerts are designed with kids aged four to twelve years in mind, though “kids” of all ages enjoy these performances.
Concerts Around Louisville
Finally, beyond the concert hall, Abrams continues to find numerous alternative ways of reaching Louisville listeners. In the LG&E Music Without Borders neighborhood series, he brings favorite classics to the city’s churches, community centers and synagogues. Performances of Handel’s Messiah are scheduled for December 1, 2 and 3 (locations TBA). Meanwhile, besides taking his piano to the streets to meet locals face to face, Abrams continues to wire his own pianos to an external sound system so that passers-by can hear the music making that takes place in his home. All told, Louisville’s 2016-17 offerings confirm that, as The Wall Street Journal recently concluded, “There’s a reason for optimism at the Louisville Orchestra.”
For full concert details, visit http://louisvilleorchestra.org/concerts/.