This Orchestra’s Tradition Is To Buck Tradition

Music director Teddy Abrams leads the Louisville Orchestra in the Festival of American Music April 15-29.
(Photo: Scott Utterback/Music Makes a City)
By Kyle MacMillan

LOUISVILLE, KY. — Many orchestras program contemporary music now and then, but few can match the moxie and adventurousness of the Louisville Orchestra, which makes music by living composers a big part of everything it does.

Nowhere is that more evident than during the ensemble’s Festival of American Music, which returns April 15-29 for its second year. How does the orchestra manage to go where so many of its peers are loath to tread? “That’s a really good question,” said music director Teddy Abrams. “Sometimes, we look at ourselves and go, ‘OK, well, somehow we’re going to make it work.’”

Singer-songwriter Ben Folds will play his piano concerto.

This year’s edition will feature singer-songwriter Ben Folds and, as guest conductor, the internationally recognized maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, along with a varied line-up of repertoire, ranging from recent works by such composers as TJ Cole, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Noah Sorota to a few modern classics like Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Along the way will be selections by four winners of the Pulitzer Prize for music: Aaron Copland (1945), Samuel Barber (1958 and 1963), John Adams (2003), and Julia Wolfe (2015).

“I think it’s an attempt to help audiences see how incredibly diverse and rich the tradition of American music is and how alive it is right now,” said composer Rachel Grimes, who will have her first orchestral piece featured at the festival. “So, we’re hearing Aaron Copland, but we’re also hearing Mason Bates. We’re hearing this extreme range of work and identity in voice and style. It’s incredible.”

Although the Louisville Orchestra is just a mid-sized orchestra with an annual budget of $6.9 million, it has a national, even an international, reputation that dates back to 1948 — just 10 years after its formation. Music director Robert Whitney and Charles Farnsley, then mayor of Louisville, hatched an ambitious plan to make commissioning and recording new works the centerpiece of the budding ensemble’s mission.

Louisville’s First Edition label championed living composers.

It became the first orchestra to create its own label — First Edition Records — and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, it recorded nearly 150 albums comprising more than 450 works by living composers, including such notables as Copland, Paul Hindemith, Witold Lutosławski, Darius Milhaud, William Schuman, and Heitor Villa-Lobos. These records were sold by subscription in more than 48 countries, giving the ensemble a profile akin to much larger and better-known orchestras.

When Abrams — then 27 — took over as music director in 2014, he wanted to build on this extraordinary legacy in a way that made sense for the 21st century. Although the orchestra had just emerged from a painful three-year reorganization after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2010, Abrams, former assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, was undaunted. Right from the start, he wanted to make creativity, new work, and experimentation with alternative styles and formats a central part of the revitalized orchestra’s activities.

To help achieve that goal, the orchestra decided to dedicate a specific period each year geared to those pursuits, an idea that became the Festival of American Music. Other than a few special events, the festival is part of the orchestra’s subscription series so that all its usual attendees can take part. “The thinking is that every year, we work with composers to create new music,” Abrams said. “We look across different styles of music that are really unusual for orchestras, and we ask our musicians to do things that they don’t normally do.”

Abrams’ Muhammed Ali tribute will be performed. (Chris Wietzke)

Such a festival makes sense in Louisville, because the city’s audiences have a long tradition of open-mindedness — one of the main reasons Abrams, a native of Berkeley, Calif., decided to move there. He notes that the city is also home to the nationally acclaimed Humana Festival of New American Plays, an event that does not shy away from the pointed and provocative. “Louisville, in its own laid-back, Southern way, is very open and creative,” said Grimes, who was born there and now lives outside the city in Milton, a small town on the Ohio River. “I think people just love the energy that Teddy and the reorganization of the LO has brought. It’s fun.”

And the numbers back her up. According to executive director Andrew Kipe, the orchestra has seen an eye-opening 52.5 percent increase in subscriptions for its Classics and Coffee series — its two main classical line-ups — over the past four seasons. Sales rose 16.5 percent from the 2015-16 alone to this season, in which the orchestra had 1,364 subscribers to its Classics series and 1,007 in its Coffee series. “I don’t know of any other orchestra that has consistently posted double-digit subscription increases over the past four years,” Kipe said via e-mail.

Although this year’s festival will include 20th-century works by Joan Tower and Lou Harrison that were premiered by the orchestra, its primary focus is on music being written today, including some composers, like Grimes, who reside in the Louisville region. From the 16th through most of the 19th century, Abrams said, such an emphasis was the norm in the classical world, and only subsequently have many orchestras and presenters become more like musical museums than creative incubators.

While the Louisville Orchestra’s previous commissions embraced European composers, including some who had immigrated to the United States, they were largely centered on Americans like Elliott Carter and Tower. Abrams is determined to maintain that emphasis with this festival. “It’s still a real sore point.” he said, “that, in general, American musical establishments have not embraced an identity of what it means to be a composer, a musician, a performing artist alive right now in this country or even in their own communities.”

Rachel Grimes’ ‘Book of Leaves’ is featured. (Jessie Kriech-Higdon)

An added facet of this year’s festival is the conductor’s ongoing attempts to go beyond the classical establishment and reach out to artists in other realms. Rapper Jecorey “1200” Arthur, for example, will appear April 28 and 29 in performances of three excerpts from Abrams’ The Greatest, an in-progress tribute to Muhammad Ali that he is composing; two Louisville jazz musicians, saxophonist Jacob Duncan and guitarist Craig Wagner, will take part in that program as well. “We try to really open that up and question that very definition of what an orchestra should play,” Abrams said.

Also contributing to the event’s diversity are Grimes and Ben Folds, whose music crosses genres and defies neat categorization. Grimes is a founding member of the indie-rock chamber ensemble Rachel’s, and she has collaborated with a range of artists and toured as a solo pianist. In 2009, she wrote a solo piano composition, Book of Leaves, a set of 14 succinct works in the vein of Claude Debussy’s Études. The Louisville Orchestra commissioned her to create orchestral versions of three of the pieces (about 10 minutes of music in all), and they were introduced at last year’s festival in what Grimes called “a huge life moment.” The three are back again this year on the April 20 and 21 program with slight changes in articulations and dynamics. “It’s going to be great to experience the music again,” she said, “and I think the players, having done it before, maybe it will be a richer experience for them, I can hope.”

Folds has made both rock and pop albums, and he was a judge for five seasons on the NBC series, The Sing Off. He will be spotlighted on the festival’s opening concert April 14, in which he will be heard in a performance of his Piano Concerto and other works that incorporate the orchestra. A lifelong fan of this essential classical configuration, he began performing in a youth symphony when he was 9 and now devotes about one-third of his concerts to appearances with orchestras. “I’m a steady, sort of full-time advocate of the symphony orchestra,” Folds said. “It’s important not to dumb down the institution in order to bring people in, and I’m happy to be part of anything that doesn’t do that.”

Abrams believes that new and off-beat repertoire can only be presented successfully by developing trust and an ongoing relationship with audiences. During his three seasons with the Louisville Orchestra, he has tried to do just that by reaching out and talking to listeners in all kinds of settings and carefully introducing works from the stage to give them context. “The contacts, the framing, and way you lead up to a performance,” he said, “is every bit as important as actually playing this music really well. And inviting conversation and dialogue about what people are seeing is equally important.”

Guest conductor: Abrams mentor Michael Tilson Thomas.

Other highlights of this year’s festival will include an April 15 concert featuring Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, whose guest conducting usually takes him to much larger orchestras. He will take turns on the podium with Abrams in a program of works with ties to each of the two maestros. Tilson Thomas will lead An American in Paris and Copland’s Our Town, and his counterpart will conduct such selections as Adams’ contemporary classic Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Abrams wrote to Tilson Thomas after attending his first orchestra concert when he was 9. The famed conductor became his mentor, inviting Abrams – at age 14 –  to lead the New World Symphony, a pre-professional training orchestra founded by Tilson Thomas in Miami Beach, Fla. “That’s pretty unheard of, both for someone in my position but also someone in his, to be so generous in that learning process,” Abrams said.

The orchestra will travel to the Temple in Louisville and the Ogle Center in New Albany, Ind., for its April 20 and 21 concerts. Except for one selection, the program will be devoted entirely to works by a multi-generational mix of female composers. It runs the gamut from Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, an upbeat, high-energy work, and Grimes’ Book of Leaves to the world premiere of a new version of Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, written in response to the Sept. 11 catastrophe. She had just dropped off her daughter at kindergarten when the first plane struck the World Trade Center two blocks away and turned her life upside down.

Julia Wolfe’s ‘Big Beautiful Dark and Scary’ is on a program largely
devoted to women composers. (Peter Serling)

“When you are a witness to something like that, something very intense and tragic, it resonates forever probably, but certainly in the year it happened and a few years after,” the composer said. She wrote the work in 2002 for the six-member Bang on a Can All-Stars, an extension of the New York contemporary music collective, Bang on a Can, of which she is co-founder and co-artistic director. The work already had an orchestral quality about it, she said, so it was not a stretch, at the urging of Abrams, to create an arrangement of it for orchestra.

Wolfe, who plans to attend one of the two concerts, said she was enticed to take part in the festival because of her admiration for Abrams. “He’s so dedicated and so open,” she said. “Those are wonderful qualities in a conductor, along with, of course, great chops. He completely understands the music. So, I’ve seen him in action and I have a lot of respect for him.”

Concluding the festival on April 28 and 29 is a program titled “American Journey,” which ranges from Barber’s overture to The School for Scandal and Snider’s Four Songs from Penelope to Herbie Hancock’s Canteloupe Island and Timo Andres’ Everything Happens So Much. “It’s pretty out there,” Abrams said. “When I read off the program to the orchestra yesterday at rehearsal, I saw everyone’s eyes widening, but they are up for it.”

A lot of orchestras are interested in being the biggest or the best, but Abrams said the Louisville Orchestra is trying to be the most interesting. He noted that some of the most adventuresome orchestras of the past were sometimes in unexpected places and not populous music centers. “I think Louisville can be the Mannheim or the Salzburg of this era,” he said.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical-music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music and Early Music America.