Back On Record, Louisville Revives Modernist Legacy

Fulfilling a promise: Teddy Abrams is reviving the Louisville Orchestra’s calling card — its recording program.

All In:  Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams (conductor, composer, clarinet), Jason Seber (conductor), Storm Large (singer). Decca Gold  B0027306-02

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — The Louisville Orchestra, the proud, enterprising “little orchestra that could,” was down for the count not too long ago, bankrupt. But the orchestra reorganized, downsized, and hired as its music director a multi-tasking, genre-jumping young composer-conductor-pianist-clarinetist who wants to put them back on the map in a big way.

‘All In’ is Louisville Orchestra’s first recording in nearly 30 years.

So with this CD, Teddy Abrams begins to fulfill his promise of reviving the Louisville Orchestra’s main calling card – its recording program. Once a virtual conveyor belt of newly commissioned works inscribed on single vinyl discs or in imposing boxed sets, the orchestra’s First Edition label gradually petered out to nothing, its huge catalog occasionally reissued piecemeal on CDs. Thus All In qualifies as an event, the first new recording from Louisville in nearly 30 years, one that briefly shot up to No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart a week after its release.

From 1976, one of Louisville’s iconic LPs of American music.

For all of the decades that have passed since the Louisville Orchestra’s recording heyday, and the unique outlook of its current commander, the orchestra still has a sound remarkably similar to what I hear whenever I spin one of those old First Edition LPs. It’s a rather lean, at times murky sound, not yet of the depth and precision of the leading American orchestras.

The title All In could mean two things – first, that Louisville is back on the recording scene, and second, that Abrams wants to unite the entire range of his multi-stylistic interests into one big ball. Certainly the latter is the intention of Unified Field, Abrams’ nearly 17-minute symphony in four continuous movements, where everything-but-the-kitchen-sink is the operating principle. Abrams’ neo-Romantic first movement breaks off into an Afro-Cuban workout, a procession that eventually comes to an elaborate climax anchored by rock `n’ roll triplets, followed by a symphonic bluegrass-folk finale.

It’s an audacious idea for a piece, executed with gleeful, messy exuberance. But I’ve heard other Abrams stylistic mash-ups at his Britt Festival in southern Oregon that combine the idioms more coherently and with greater ease than this.

Storm Large sings Large, Porter and Abrams. (© Laura Domela)

The “crazy enough” (her words) singer-actress-author-composer Storm Large takes the spotlight for the next three selections:  a soft-rock ballad of her own, “A Woman’s Heart,” some snazzy jazz belting in Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright With Me,” and finally a symphonic rock Abrams song, “The Long Goodbye,” where he provides an orchestral obbligato of fascinating intricacy.  (An excerpt is below.) Abrams then hands the baton over to Jason Seber (the Kansas City Symphony’s associate conductor), picks up a clarinet, and takes on the Copland Clarinet Concerto, where his natural affinity for jazz serves him better than most in the jazzy second part of the piece.

Only 45 minutes in length – or two sides of a vinyl LP if it ever gets issued in that format – the album amounts to a sketchy sampler of what Abrams is capable of and intends to do while in Louisville. Let’s see where they take it from here.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.