Review: Louisville Orchestra Offers Discovery in the Old and New

Abrams-Photo-by-Sam-English

Teddy Abrams continues to show that orchestra concerts don’t have to be formulaic, and that discovery manifest in different ways. This past Friday and Saturday evening, we discovered, for example, that a conductor doesn’t have to wear a tuxedo or black socks. We discovered that hearing a 5-7 minute harpsichord improvisation could be interesting and fun, if not a little too long. We discovered the 2014 Grawemeyer winner. Ultimately no one was harmed by these discoveries, that I’m aware of, and we are all the better for them.

First of the evening were selections from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman), a comédie-ballet from the early Baroque. Teddy Abrams led from the harpsichord (not as Lully would have done, but as most of his contemporaries would have) and the orchestra moved through the score like a jazz band reading through charts. It felt informal, welcoming, unpretentious and fun.

Lack of rehearsal, due to last week’s snow storms, meant no Ravel. It also might explain a handful of messy entrances in the Lully and Vivaldi. Just starting a piece can be the hardest and most nerve-racking part of leading an ensemble. Add the layer of conducting almost entirely from the harpsichord and things get messy sometimes; though messy isn’t necessarily bad.

A welcome addition to this Louisville Orchestra season is a recent Grawemeyer winner, the 2014 awarded On the Guarding of the Heart by Djuro Zivkovich, a Serbian composer living in Sweden. He describes the work as an “instrumental cantata,” paying homage to Bach. Zivkovich’s 20-minute score is an exploration of sound and timbre; the fourteen musicians are frequently required to play outside their traditional sounds, including singing along with their instrument. Overall, the work is a delicate layering of harmony, shifting imperceptibly, showing off an inner beauty.

Though Abrams explained before the piece that structure in this new work is important and clear, to a new listener form and musical architecture are largely inaudible. We are naturally drawn to phrases and ideas that return. Here Zivkovich gives some ideas too little time to settle, while others are afforded too much time, including several insurmountable piano drones. While the Brown Theater was a better venue than Whitney Hall for On the Guarding of the Heart, an even smaller, more resonant hall would have better suited Zivkovich’s (and Lully and Vivaldi’s) music.

For the second half, Teddy Abrams brought in four student violinists from his alma mater, The Curtis Institute of Music, through “Curtis on Tour,” a program that puts students in professional settings around the world.

Each violinist took on one of the Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, a set of concertos written in 1720 and part of a set of 12 concertos (op. 8). The fact that “Spring” (and all the seasons) are ubiquitous is all the more incredible when you consider that Vivaldi was virtually unknown until the early Twentieth century. Despite their over abundance in playlists and “Best Of” compilations, these seasonal vignettes are inventive and imaginative. The two cheerful seasons, “Spring” and “Autumn,” are contrasted with the more tumultuous “Summer” and “Winter.”

Eunice Kim played a light and fluid “Spring,” delicately bouncing through the score, and smiling the entire time. Dayna Anderson drew on the earthiness of “Summer,” giving her bow a rustic growl here and there. The most flamboyant soloist was Luosha Fang, mostly interested in a dialogue with the orchestra and the audience, moving around the stage like an actor. The “iceman” Nikki Chooi was calculated — each gesture focused and transparent. Chooi found every timbre available in “Winter,” from dark and guttural to airy and shimmering.

The orchestra, playing no small part in these finely crafted concertos, was colorful and sensitive to the score: never plodding and always attuned to the nuance of Vivaldi’s music. Seeing the conductor equally involved in the playing of music changes our level of involvement. We are drawn in closer. The implied barrier between us and them is no longer present, and the music is about all of us.

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