Composer Tyler Taylor. Photo: Miggy Torres
A Concert for Unity
Teddy Abrams, conductor
Katie Peabody, Peter Searcy, Scott Smith, Jecorey Arthur, and Carly Johnson, vocals
A review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
Our Louisville Orchestra has a long-standing tradition of commissioning works from composers. This is a strong and proud legacy that is still upheld today. Saturday evening’s performance was testament to that commitment for new music and supporting talent.
But you and I both know that the evening’s concert was a bit different and skewed from the formula that many of us have come to know over the Louisville Orchestra’s decades long existence. While many commissions often look for talent from around the world, for this concert Mr. Abrams wanted to stay closer to home. For the first half of the evening, we heard music by composers, lyricists, and performers from our very own backyard, and seven of them were World Premieres.
In programming the concert, our musical director pushed things a little further, asking the composers for work that reflects their lives, feelings, hopes and/or doubts from the past 18 months under the thumb of the COVID 19 pandemic.
As you well may know, the artistic mind is a strong and fruitful creative entity and the pieces that were developed certainly held true to the power that music can create.
The evening began with a relatively new work by Valerie Coleman, originally from Louisville, and a highly sought-after recitalist and teacher, as well as composer. Ms. Coleman, a flutist, was the creator of the group, Imani Winds, that was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005. Recently, Ms. Coleman was listed as one of the Top 35 Women Composers in the Washington Post.
Ms. Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem for Unity” was brilliant. Umoja is the Swahili word for Unity and part of the principles espoused in the celebration of Kwanzaa. Within this piece one can hear a nod to folk music, especially in the violin descant beautifully played by Gabriel Lefkowitz. As the melody interweaves itself through the sections, it is noticeable that there is a tenuousness that happens within the instruments. Is it a brief tussle to be heard? To be understood? Perhaps. From the dampened trumpets to the gorgeous melody contained within the middle of the movement that erupts from the winds and woods, this piece is an embodiment of the realization of what can happen when there is disconnection and then, Unity.
The next set featured seven local artists many of whom we are familiar with, such as the inimitable Scott T. Smith, Peter Searcy, Carly Johnson, and Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy). I delighted in hearing their individual works and voices punctuated by the instrumentation of the Louisville Orchestra. And while I truly appreciate the talent that these artists have, I was excited to hear the pieces offered by the lesser-known artists of the evening: Joseph Dunn and Tyler Taylor.
Smith is truly making a name for himself in and around the community and can often be seen in collaborations with another local artist, cellist/songwriter Ben Sollee. This evening we heard their latest work, “Hands on Me”, with Scott on the vocals. Coming onto the stage Mr. Smith dedicated the song to his father. The piece certainly had a folksy feel to it and while the lyrics may lean toward a political bent, I listened a bit deeper. “Hands on Me” very well could have been a cathartic ode to an individual’s woes and insecurities that lead them to dream.
When Will Oldham isn’t pursuing his acting career, he is a force in the world of music. He has an innate ability to be truthful, if not bluntly so, in his songwriting. While his sound leans in many directions such as Americana and Country, he also bends to Indie Rock. His offering, “Thick Air”, certainly lent itself to the latter. Unfortunately, Mr. Oldham was not able to be at the concert but he suggested soloist Katie Peabody. Ms. Peabody certainly had the Oldham vibe in her delivery and gave me the feeling of being at Lilith Fair or Forecastle with a voice that echoed Sarah McLachlan. While she had some issues with reaching some of the notes, I feel that she gave the right context and emotion to a piece investigating isolation and its effects.
The next piece, “The Schnitzelburg Waltz” by Joseph Dunn, has me wanting to hear more from this emerging composer. As you can probably gather from the name, it is a danceable piece reminiscent of what one might hear from a five-piece band at the German-American Club, and I’d dare say that this arrangement had George Hauck dancing in the Heavens above while playing Dainty. From the happy notes emanating from the brass to the snare drums giving me a hotel piano/jazz bar vibe I could hear a nod to the stylings of the incomparable Vince Guaraldi.
If you’ve lived in Louisville at all there is a good chance that you’ve heard Peter Searcy at some point in your musical journey. Starting in the Punk scene with Squirrel Bait, Mr. Searcy has navigated many musical transformations and has worked with bands far and wide. His music now lands more softly now, but still has an edge to it, as we heard in “Tearing Apart”. This piece does feel a little heavy, emotionally, and has some hard hitting and relevant observations in its lyrics: “…can we sew it back together again?” Been thinking about that lyric all weekend.
In recent months, Mr. Abrams was introduced to the writings of a young lady by the name of Tytianna Wells. More specifically, her poem American Dream. If you have the time and inclination, I highly suggest you look for this poem. It is filled with raw emotions, ideas, ideals, and thoughts of America through the eyes of someone who struggles to reconcile their past, present, and future.
Teddy invited local composer Tyler Taylor to set the poem to music, resulting in, “…Do you really want to know…”. In our music director’s words, this is a rare piece where the music “leapt off the page”. He is absolutely right. Just wow. I could hear the anguish in the augmented notes of dissonance then a major triad which gave a feeling of hope and compassion. A rollercoaster. To be honest, the piece was piercing and challenging and still has me reading Ms. Wells’ poem and placing the music where it fits. A beautiful collaboration to be sure.
Louisville is blessed with some fabulous female singers, such as Christine Devereaux and Robbie Bartlett, who perform almost nightly at local restaurants and nightclubs. Among the chanteuse set of lovelies is another golden throat, Carly Johnson. I was happy to hear Ms.Johnson perform with the orchestra once again with “Simultaneous Combustion”. Known for her soulful singing, ala Adele, Ms. Johnson left her heart on stage with this slow jam tune that shares getting by day by day and the sharing of our collective lives. For me, the embodiment of the song was reflected in this verse: “pull down your sleeve, your heart is showing.”
To wind up the first half of the evening we heard the stylings of long time Louisville Orchestra collaborator, Jecorey Arthur. Mr. Arthur, known as 1200 and now sering on the Metro council, is a man who enjoys sharing his vision and music through artistic endeavors, such as his compilation “Mo(u)rning”. With a Marimba placed at the front of the Orchestra and mallets in hand, Mr. Arthur began to play while a slow drone came from the bass strings and served as a background for the chatter of media sound clips that came into play. As the clips fade Mr. Arthur begins to rap of the recent and unanswered injustices that plague our community and society. A strong piece.
These commissioned pieces all expressed some political and/or social themes, but that is part of the power that music can provide. It can be soothing and warm but it can also be uncomfortable and make one squirm.
To close out a thoughtfully programmed evening we delighted in one of Tchaikovsky’s best works, “Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74” also known as “Pathétique” The Passionate Symphony.
Within the first movement, Adagio-Allegro non troppo, the introduction of the melody from the bassoons was welcoming, but while the violas began the first theme, the piece became familiar as this particular theme has been used in countless modes of media. There were times that the orchestra had small lapses in sharp cutoffs, but when those sudden stops occurred it was effective.
Allegro con graza, the second movement, I’ve tried to put my finger on for years. Is it a waltz? Is it just a danza that lends itself to thinking it is a waltz? I guess it depends on what musicologist you talk to. Regardless, the section moved many audience members to a round of applause which gave the orchestra a little breath.
The third movement, Allegro molto vicace, is a bit hectic and it takes a deft hand in controlling the runaway train that it can become. The strings are in constant motion and the winds and woods are giving it their all, as is the brass section. And as the orchestra reaches the end of the movement the composer gives us what is known as a deceptive finale because of a happy coda. It is after such a performance that Teddy and his orchestra took an even longer and well-deserved break.
Finale: Adagio lamentoso, the last movement, lays it all out in its name. Lament. The opening is relatively fun and joyous as Teddy asks the orchestra for pops of sound while dancing a bit from his podium, then, without much warning, an explosion of sound erupts from the orchestra. Everyone is involved. Everyone is engaged. After a brief reintroduction of the light theme of the first movement, the trombones and tuba herald a somber feel that is then finished in the cellos, bass and bassoons. The ending gives us pause to reflect.
Which leads me to share the beginning of the evening.
Louisville Orchestra’s Chairman of the Board Lee Kirkwood came to introduce our musicians but shared a startling number with the audience: 588. It had been 588 days since we had gathered as a collective audience in Whitney Hall to listen to our Louisville Orchestra.
As Mr. Abrams spoke with the audience and thanked us for the commitment and reassurance that he and the Orchestra have benefitted from these past 588 days, he asked that we bow our heads in silent meditation and reflect on the importance of that moment. Of resilience. Of changes. Of healing. Of the Power of Music.
It was in that silence that I wept. I wept for what has passed, for our present, and for our future.
It was a moment we all needed.
A Concert for Unity
October 2, 2021
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
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.