David Krakauer & Teddy Abrams. Photo: Louisville Orchestra

Together in Song

Louisville Orchestra

Teddy Abrams, conductor
David Krakauer, clarinet, Dimitri Gaskin, accordion
Anthony Russell, vocals, Angela Brown, soprano, Fred Wesley, trombone
SoCalled, electronic beats, Jason Clayborn, vocals, 
Kevin James, Choir Director, St. Stephen Mass Choir, guest artists

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2024 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

There is no denying the emotional power of music, whether a song helps to soothe a broken heart or a melody helps recall a ride on a merry-go-round and happier days. Saturday evening’s Louisville Orchestra (LO) program was dedicated to the place where musical cultures collide and demonstrate just how close we all are on so many levels.

About four years ago, Teddy Abrams and the LO embarked on a journey to find where Black music often intersects and blends with Jewish music. Those lines are blurred as there is an almost expected confluence in the writing styles and the subject matters.

We needn’t go down the history road, but we know how Negro spirituals were used to both elevate spirits and serve as a rallying cry for the oppressed, much like the Jewish klezmer soundscape could be both joyous and somber.

If you have been attending orchestral concerts for a while, it is easy to expect the usual suspects, even if the program is a bit more nuanced, but, lucky for us, Teddy and the LO have the chutzpah to give us something out of the ordinary. This evening’s selections were on the side of extraordinary. Culling from our own Creators Corp. and working with world-renowned artists, we were treated to newly composed and arranged works that shone with collaborative cultures’ brilliance.

It would take pages to go through each piece that we heard this evening, but I would like to focus on a handful that left an indelible mark in my mind and ear.

Like an amuse bouche we began the evening with selections from Aaron Copeland’s Music for the Theatre. While this piece is not as widely performed as some of Copland’s other works one cannot ignore its influences on Leonard Bernstein and Scott Joplin. There is that indistinctive Americana sound woven throughout and then a heavy barrage of jazz just throws you into some danceable moments.

As another musical appetizer, Teddy and the LO were joined onstage by the hugely talented St. Stephen Mass Choir (who partnered with the LO since the beginning of this series) who brought down the house with their interpretation of the traditional spiritual Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow, arranged by André Wilson. I was almost in tears from the sound and energy of this performance.

Accordionist Dmitri Gaskin arranged the oft-heard Wayfaring Stranger into a stunning new piece that blends the sounds of the original along with the familiar klezmer. While I am sure the piece would have been delightful to hear as an accordion concerto, how lucky were we that we got to hear one of the pre-eminent clarinetists of our time, David Krakauer, show off his acrobatic abilities on the humble wood instrument? To bring the stirring words to life we are introduced to Anthony Russell whose basso is one of extraordinary depth.

Creative Corps’ Nkeiru Okoye shared a small but oh-so-powerful sampling of her opera Songs of Harriet Tubman. “I Am Moses, the Liberator” is heavy in spiritual influence and has a definitive feel of a traditional aria or art song. As the subject matter is steeped in religion and the work of the revered Harriet Tubman, it takes an exceptional talent to convey the nuance and boy oh boy did we get talent. Well-known soprano Angela Brown embodied the heart and soul of Harriet and delivered a powerhouse performance.

The traditional Der Heyser Bulgar was brought to life by Krakauer’s band Abraham Inc., which features not just Krakauer and Gaskin but renowned trombonist Fred Wesley, who has worked with James Brown, and SoCalled, a respected Canadian record producer who has an affinity for mixing genres. Highly appropriate for this evening. 

After Carlos Simon’s Holy Dance praise break, we were thrust into more of the heart of the reason why these styles of music blend so well.

Krakauer and Wesley’s Moskowitz Remix was a lesson in artistic jam sessions while Russell and Gaskin introduced In Der Fremd (In a Strange Place), adapted from a poem by Leyb Naydus, into a piece that if one did not know any better, was straight out of the Great American Songbook.

Richard Smallwood’s Procession of Levites/Anthem of Praise was another showstopper for the St. Stephen Mass Choir as was Anthony Russell’s arrangement of the traditional Zion, Adoration of the Ancestral Shrin.

Frequent collaborator Jason Clayborn, fresh from entertaining His Holiness in Rome, got the crowd and all on stage energized and practically on their feet with his song of praise You’re All I Need. But just as we were jazzed by Clayborn and felt renewed, we were brought down to Earth by the haunting and dramatic Rosie, another piece blended with klezmer and Negro spiritual descent, performed by Krakauer, Gaskin, and Russell, with the Choir as an extra accompaniment.

To round out the evening, Mr. Gaskin shared that the last piece, Open, when he researched the arrangement, was premiered in Louisville in 1899 by Dr. Robert Shapiro. All our guest artists, save Ms. Brown, came onto the stage and blew everyone out of the water with this joyous sound.

One would have been hard-pressed to not walk away from this concert moved and convinced that, as Abrams shared, “music is a symbol of what we are in the community and can be a beacon of hope.” 

Bravi Tutti

Together in Song

January 13, 2024

Louisville Orchestra
Kentucky Center
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 25+ years of experience in the classical arts.