Joan Shelley.

Kentucky Classics: Festival of American Music 1

Louisville Orchestra

Teddy Abrams, conductor
Joan Shelley, vocalist
Tyrone Cotton, vocalist
Michael Cleveland + Flamekeeper
Lizzie No, vocalist

By Shaun Kenney

Entire contents are copyright © 2018 Shaun Kenney. All rights reserved

Collaboration between musical artists is in and of itself an art. The results of which not only exhibit the skills and talents each artist or group brings to the table but also creates something brand new, something fresh and exciting, a completely unique sound. On March 24 the Louisville Orchestra and its guest artists achieved just this. And the resulting performances were sublime.

Accompanied by the exceptional orchestrations of Sebastian Chang, the works of Joan Shelley, Tyrone Cotton, and Lizzie No were elevated to something never before seen or heard on stage. Conductor Teddy Abrams intimated to us that he had worked with all of these artists in the past but never in this capacity. I was admittedly unfamiliar with all of these folks prior to this concert and so afterward I did a little searching and found recordings of the songs in their original form, just for comparison. They are exceptional just the way they are, simple guitar and string accompaniments with gorgeous vocals, but there was something about adding the orchestra that made these pieces truly magical for me.

Joan Shelley’s soft, pure voice was mesmerizing and instantly relaxing and calming. I couldn’t help but be happy listening to her. The gentle rasp of Tyrone Cotton was beyond beautiful and there were several in the house dabbing their eyes with tissues at the end of his “Dreams”. Though Lizzie No is based out of Brooklyn, New York, her music certainly draws from the folk and Appalachian styles of Kentucky and her rich voice soared effortlessly over the orchestra.

Michael Cleveland + Flamekeeper were recently featured in the Louisville Orchestra Pops series and as I didn’t see that performance I’m so thankful that they were involved in this program as well. Truly a bluegrass band, the fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and bass are all augmented perfectly by the orchestrations of Brad Ritchie.  We were treated to three performances from this group: “Northern White Clouds” by the Father of Bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe; “Lonesome Desert”, an original composition by Michael Cleveland, featuring him on the mandolin and expertly painting us an image of the works title; and “Too Late for Goodbyes”, a bluegrass arrangement of the Julian Lennon song from 1984.  I love a good cover and this was more than good, it was fantastic.

Shifting the focus away from Kentucky artists, the evening was bookended by orchestral works from American composers Edgar Meyer and Aaron Copland respectively. New Piece for Orchestra by Tennessee native Edgar Meyer was commissioned for the Nashville Symphony and was first performed in 2017. Mr. Meyer is an accomplished bass player in his own right and draws much of his inspiration from bluegrass and jazz. This was his first orchestral work without a featured soloist and was a wonderful introduction to his style. I found it to be a conversation between different sections of the orchestra, dynamically shifting focus from strings to woodwinds, to brass and employing dramatic volume contrasts, forcing you to lean in and listen one moment only to be surprised by a sonorous blast the next.

One of the most iconic American composers, Aaron Copland, composed his work Rodeo as a ballet though it is rarely performed as one. Mr. Copland borrowed from and even outright copied folk songs for this composition. Thanks to Teddy Abrams on piano, Joan Shelley on vocals and Michael Cleveland on fiddle we were able to hear these original tunes prior to the performance. The selections from Rodeo were spirited and energetic and the audience couldn’t help but clap after each movement. The finale was a tune we are all familiar with, “Hoe-Down”. If you don’t know what I’m referring to maybe this will help; “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” Ring a bell now? And though I am a vegetarian and don’t partake in steaks or burgers, beef was definitely on the menu tonight. The liveliness of this dance was the perfect way to close out a night of American music.

I think the best part of the evening was something Mr. Abrams said regarding his hope that we would leave with a desire to follow these artists we may not previously have heard of, that those who were only familiar with the orchestra would leave wanting to know more about the singers and songwriters featured and that those who were in the audience because of those singers and songwriters would leave with a new appreciation for the orchestra. I believe this mission was certainly accomplished.

Kentucky Classics: Festival of American Music 1

March 24, 2018

Louisville Orchestra
Whitney Hall, Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 W Main St
Louisville, KY 40202

Shaun Kenney studied Music Education and Instrumental at Campbellsville University. In Louisville, he has worked with Finnigan Productions since its inception, as Stage Manager, Sound Designer, and Director.