Teddy Abrams & Sam Bush. Photo: O’Neil Arnold

The Louisville Orchestra Virtual Edition Presents: Appalachian Spring 

Special Guests Sam Bush, mandolin/fiddle and Steven Mougin, Guitar
Teddy Abrams, conductor

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

Whether you have the privilege of watching and listening to the award-winning Sam Bush and Steve Mougin in person or in recordings, it is always a joy. Fortunately, we were given the experience, albeit virtually, of an exceptional evening of both Sam Bush’s winning Bluegrass style and the world premieres of other pieces, all accompanied by Mr. Mougin.

As one may imagine, Bluegrass music is not commonly given the orchestral treatment, but I’ve got to tell you, through arrangements by Nathan Farrington and Gabriel Globus-Hoenich, the treatment worked on many levels. The orchestrations added such a lovely, deeper sound and vibe to many of the songs and allowed what were perfectly lovely pieces to absolutely shine even brighter.

The evening began with the premiere of Sam Bush’s The Old North Woods. Starting with a nuanced pizzicato in the cellos and bass the sound gravitated to the woods and winds who began to mimic birds chirping and singing. Softly in the background, we heard a drum played with a brush allowing for a subtle beat structure. Mr. Bush strummed his mandolin while Mr. Mougin strikingly filled in the chords and harmonies, as did the rest of the small orchestra. The song is steeped in visions of a more modest time.

The next selection, Eight More Miles to Louisville, was written by Kentucky native Grandpa Jones. While Mr. Jones (Louis Marshall by birth) gained mainstream prominence through “Hee Haw” he was already an accomplished songwriter and banjoist. He could pick a mean ‘jo. With Mr. Bush’s mandolin lead, the violins serve in the staccato notation for a good portion of the piece and the woods and winds fill in gaps, even giving a handclap or two. When you hear the lyric “hometown of my heart”, it makes this boomerang Louisvillian smile a bit.

Lucky for me I got a little sneak peek at what was going to be performed this evening and color me intrigued when I saw a song titled The Mahavishnu Mountain Boys. Yeah, I didn’t know what to expect with this one but was pleasantly surprised. Trading out his trademark mandolin, Mr. Bush moved to his fiddle. The orchestra began with a pleasantly slower tempo but gradually the heat got turned on and the joint began to jump. Layer upon layer of sound is built using a handful of instruments, and yes, I think I just heard Klezmer in a Bluegrass-ish song.

Circles Around Me (also the name of a Sam Bush album) begins with a guitar solo by Mr. Mougin and quickly joined by a small violin solo by Gabriel Lefkowitz, which then evolves into a full orchestration and Mr. Bush’s mandolin once more. Written as a song of thanks by Mr. Bush and Jeff Black, the piece is a nice bridge to what was to come.

Peter Rowan and Sam Bush’s Revival, expanded the influences to include a tinge of reggae, followed by Bush’s Puppies N’ Knapsacks. Both are instrumentals, but what lies in those notes is a melding of musical cultures. While Revival does have a certain Caribbean bent to it, Puppies has the feel of a hoedown. You may ask where the confluence is? Both pieces are representative of what is considered commonplace among musicians, written improvisation. Both are certainly arranged and are musically mapped out, but each has if you will excuse the phrase borrowed from the aforementioned “Hee Haw”, perfectly suited for “pickin’ and a grinnin’”.

As Mr. Bush tuned his mandolin once more, he quipped to the orchestra, “this is why there aren’t eight strings on a violin”. 

Gold Heart Locket, featuring Mr. Bush and Mr. Mougin was a lovely, romantic song that hit many touchstones of the Bluegrass sound. But, if you want the real deal, Mr. Bush couldn’t have done better than by choosing I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky, by the father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Talk about when the joint gets a-jumping! The looks on the orchestra’s faces when this foot-stomper of a song was being performed was magical. There were smiles for miles in the Paristown Hall.

As I said, when you have good caliber musicians doing what they do best and love what they do, good things happen and memories are made.

As Mr. Abrams introduced the last selection for the evening, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, he shared some of the lyrics from Simple Gifts, the Shaker hymn from which Copland drew his inspiration:

‘Tis the Gift to be Simple,
‘Tis the Gift to be Free,
‘Tis the Gift to Come Down Where We Ought to Be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
‘Twill be in the Valley of Love and Delight

Teddy goes on to share that the Louisville Orchestra serves the community and part of its mission is to bring people together because American music has a communal quality.

He continued with the observation that one cannot stop good music from becoming a part of you. Copland recognized this in that he was able to incorporate various kinds of influences: cowboy, Shaker, Jewish, etc.

As the piano began the C to get the instruments in tune, you could see that there was a significant change in the number of instruments on stage. In fact, this Gifts is arranged for 13 instruments: violins, violas, one cello, one bass, one clarinet, one flute, one bassoon, and piano.

It begins 2nd violin to cello to clarinet, like the rising of the sun while the piano lays gentle chords underneath, giving the piece foundation.

The whole of the ensemble is calm and reflective and allows for its listener to imagine the influence of nature. You could almost see the birds returning to their roosts.

Unfortunately, just as the aforementioned theme built from Simple Gifts was starting to gain momentum, my feed stopped, so I missed a bit of the concert.

No matter. What I did watch and listen to was uplifting and needed after what we have been experiencing in the past year. It was a great reminder to embrace those simple gifts that have the largest impact.

Bravi Tutti!!

The Louisville Orchestra Virtual Edition Presents: Appalachian Spring

November 7, 2020


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’ experience in the classical arts.