Embracing Its Audience, A Visionary Orchestra Breaks Cultural Mold

When attention-getting Louisville Orchestra music director Teddy Abrams announced a ticket raffle for an April 29 concert starring cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to take place somewhere in Mammoth Cave, the event quickly sold out and raised awareness of the orchestra’s two-year statewide tour. (National Park Service)

LOUISVILLE — Yo-Yo Ma will be performing here? In Mammoth Cave? When attention-getting Louisville Orchestra music director Teddy Abrams announced a ticket raffle for an April 29 orchestra concert starring the cello superstar in his cavern debut, the event quickly sold out while raising awareness for the orchestra’s upcoming statewide tours. That off-the-cave-wall concert is emblematic of Abrams’ out-of-the box approach to enhancing his orchestra’s image and building audiences in Louisville as well as statewide in Kentucky.

There are times, when gazing at fellow audience members in a symphony orchestra audience, that one can worry whether we are coming to the end of something. A highly paid professional in a field other than music might never have learned an instrument in grade school, or had piano lessons in the home, or learned to read a score, much less observed first-hand what a conductor actually does in rehearsal, or what’s so late about late-Romantic music. Yet that person is fully capable of responding to the wonder of the musical experience itself. But does it follow that he or she will respond as readily to the way classical music has always been sold?

Abrams: If you want to grow an audience, talk about this terrific music they’ve never heard, not opus numbers. (Chris Wietzke)

Abrams, who was named Musical America 2022 Conductor of the Year, is among orchestral leaders who warn that symphony orchestras are missing an opportunity to reach people with terrific music they’ve never heard, or even heard of, in the mistaken belief that trying something new will alienate them. (Earlier this season it was announced that Abrams is the composer on a Broadway development team for a musical about Louisville-born Muhammed Ali.)

“It’s very scary if you hold up the mirror to what we are really doing,” Abrams said. He warns of the numbing effect of too much sameness “and what the musical relationship to the community looks like in the long term, selling music in the same way and not changing the method until it’s absolutely necessary. That’s too late for me. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but if we can get people to show up for the experience as opposed to the repertoire, that’s what we want in the culture of an audience.

“It’s either older music or famous music, in my view, when you talk about it. Don’t talk about standard repertory or keys or opus numbers. These are terms which are laden with assumptions and stereotypes. Maybe you know the composer. Maybe you don’t. It doesn’t matter. We can learn a lot from festivals, where the experience itself tends to be the number-one attraction. You might not even need to ask what’s playing.”

The Louisville Orchestra’s broad approach to building audience enthusiasm was apparent with the quick sell-out of Ma’s forthcoming appearance at Mammoth Cave. That concert will mark the onset of a two-year statewide tour led by Abrams. Among the works to resound in the cave: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, Henk Badings’ “Louisville Symphony” and music by Angèlica Negrón for a hip-hop collective.

Funded by a $4.3 million appropriation from the Kentucky General Assembly, the orchestra’s statewide tour project was announced with the jargon-free media flair that is the 35-year-old Abrams’ trademark. He emphasized that the tour would reach “every single part of Kentucky” with stays for multiple days: “It’s not going to be just an orchestra playing a concert, and then it’s over, and then you clap.”

The Kentucky Center, in downtown Louisville, is home to the Louisville Orchestra and other events ranging from Broadway to bluegrass and ballet. (Frankie Steele)

“It’s a strange model, the orchestra model,” said Abrams recently backstage at the Kentucky Center, where his orchestra performs most of the time. “Typically you have one music director who has all the creative authority, but he or she is absent most of the year, probably living in a different city, flying in on occasion. So, this is already a distant relationship with the creative heartbeat, and a large staff ends up doing most of the managing. The amount of time a largely absent leader can devote to a project is very different from the situation we have here in Louisville. We have gone from just me to four people now, and these are four capable people devoted to leading how our projects develop and unfold.”

Louisville’s Creators Corps: Composers TJ Cole, below left, Lisa Bielawa and Tyler Taylor.

The other three people, announced in March 2022, are members of the Louisville Orchestra Creators Corps, a team of composers who came onboard this season: Lisa Bielawa, TJ Cole, and Tyler Taylor. Their charge is to work with Abrams, to write music, and to be actively present in the Louisville creative scene, on staff with a $40,000 salary for 30 weeks a year, free housing, work space, and health insurance. Abrams emphasizes the close relationship he will have with the three composers throughout the year.

“Just as an example, some of the Kentucky touring we’re doing began to involve one of the Creators, and now they’re all involved,” Abrams said. “Tyler has been out transiting between Central Kentucky cities, collecting melodies and building them into a piece of music interwoven with Appalachian elements. TJ is writing pieces that have a narrative component, to be performed in libraries. And all three are writing for the Louisville Orchestra as well.”

Among composer Lisa Bielawa’s works for the Louisville Orchestra are one inspired by the funeral of Queen Elizabeth and another by the Louisville waterfront. (Desmond White)

Coming up is Bielawa’s Louisville Broadcast, a new work for an unlimited number of participants to debut April 23 at locations including the Big Four Bridge at the city’s waterfront. The piece is written so that student and amateur musicians can join in, with ensembles expected to include the Louisville Drumline Academy, the Louisville Leopard Percussionists (grades 2-9), and the VOICES of Kentuckiana, a chorus. Bielawa envisions that the performers will be spread out in long chains, flanking the walkways, their movements coordinated by musical cues.

“Projects like this are the composers’ own ideas,” Abrams said. “If we had handed them a slate of things to do, we wouldn’t be developing the trust of the composers themselves. It’s kind of like the magic you feel in your own hometown school, where you’re forging intense relationships and developing a rich understanding of who these people in your midst really are. What’s also fascinating is the amount of time we are able to devote to these projects. It’s not at all the same kind of compression that happens where you get a composer in residence for a couple days or, if lucky, two weeks.”

In years past, Bielawa created music for public spaces in Lower Manhattan, Rome, Berlin, and San Francisco, as well as made-for-TV opera, and festival projects in collaboration with Philip Glass. But the Covid-19 crisis put a wrench in all her activities, and she found herself unmoored. “I realized coming out of the pandemic that I was really yearning for a sense of belonging,” she recalled backstage earlier this year, after the Louisville rehearsal of a new work. “All my touring with the Philip Glass Ensemble had been grounded. Ninety-five percent of that work was gone by the end of March 2020. Plus, during the height of Covid, I lived only a block away from the largest hospital complex in Manhattan. I had a tough time.

Abrams with TJ Cole, the youngest member of the Louisville Creators Corps.

“The idea of coming to a community like this, functioning in collaboration with somebody really good like Teddy, made a lot of sense.” Born in 1968, Bielawa is the most experienced of the three Creators Corps members, and she fell easily into a mentoring role. (Here’s a new piece some very young performers worked on with her encouragement.)

By now, all three of the composers have had their Creators Corps works done by the Louisville Orchestra. “We have good archival recordings,” Abrams said. “TJ’s music was the most overtly populist, inspired by a nature preserve (Louisville’s Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest). It featured whirly tubes and it was very tonal. The people just went bonkers!” Abrams is bringing a work by Cole to Chicago’s Ravinia Festival this summer.

“Tyler’s music was very intense, but the people were with him all the way,” the conductor said. “It involved saxophones in SATB format (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) for the most part, and what emerged was an entirely new concept of what the sax’s contribution to an orchestra can be. I’m not really referring to jazz style. It’s more like a whole new section of the orchestra opens up, not as solo instruments – more like a concerto grosso, and you definitely hear that in the texture.” (Taylor talks about this concept in the video below.)

Bielawa’s Send the Carriage Through, which premiered earlier in the season, was a wild creation inspired by Queen Elizabeth’s grand funeral procession, the measured rhythms and majesty of which required some musicians to be positioned in unusual spaces. At its first performance in Louisville, the whole thing had a momentous, and also somewhat nostalgic, sense of ceremony, evoking the persistent, stately rhythms and elaborately choreographed procedures on display — and then the parade was gone. Music from a separate group of players resounded from the balcony, as if from a cathedral choir loft, the musicians eventually making their way to the stage. There were charming, if mystifying, moments: At one point, conductor Abrams just exited stage right. At another, he surrendered his baton to the concertmaster so Abrams could join in with a tribute from the piano. At yet another turn, two conductors facing opposite directions were required. Bielawa’s Facebook page preserves images from the event.

“Not to get too sentimental, but I wanted to record my own unfolding joy at belonging to something again,” Bielawa said of her new work. “The piece brings me that, but it’s also a celebration of Teddy and his weird and wonderful vision. It isn’t often as a composer that you are given an opportunity to make a difference like this. I think I can do something here.”

Composer Lisa Bielawa acknowledges a standing ovation Jan. 13, 2023, at Kentucky Center on the occasion of her Louisville Orchestra Creators Corps commission, “Send the Carriage Through.” (Louisville Orchestra photo)