Sebastian Chang and a New Symphony

Sebastian was commissioned by Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra for a new symphony. Mr. Chang was in town for the performance and talked with Daniel Gilliam about the creative process surrounding his first major work.

Review: Louisville Orchestra Presents World Premiere of Chang Symphony

Sebastian-Chang

Teddy Abrams led the Louisville Orchestra on Thursday and Friday in two symphonies: one premiere and the other one of the most performed since its premiere in 1876. The new work by Sebastian Chang, and commissioned by the LO, is his first major composition, clocking in at around thirty minutes. Titled Classical Symphony, it’s modeled on those of Mozart and Haydn, but with a musical language of today (Prokofiev did the same this with his first symphony).

Chang’s symphony is charming, with moments of nostalgia hinting at Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Herrmann. Chang seems most comfortable writing lush jazz chords or memorable tunes (I’ve remembered the second movement theme since hearing it once at the first rehearsal in December). He is melodically gifted and wants to say something that is personal in every gesture. Chang is also charming, and he smiles a lot, just like his music.

An orchestra at a premiere is a tightly-wound band, which can lead to a mechanical performance. But these performances were full of care and musicality, led by Abrams who didn’t just lead the music, but understood it. Chang’s romantic score gives the bulk of the melodic material to the violins, which at times felt like too much. I kept hoping for some prominent cello lines, or individual wind and brass players showcased. The Whitney Hall audiences were genuinely thrilled, giving Chang a warm, enthusiastic welcome.

At both performances Abrams noted the history of the Louisville Orchestra as a commissioning organization, and how this premiere was continuing that tradition. Crucial in reviving this reputation is funding. The money to commission a composer fairly for their work must come from within the community (individuals, organizations and foundations), even as the orchestra seeks funders on a national level. A composer earns in a year what a high-profile soloist makes in one night. Equally, the composers who are commissioned should be well-known and lesser-known, from around the country and close to home.

Johannes Brahms carefully deliberated over his first symphony for twenty years. Was he a rookie composer and unsure of himself? No, he had written a monumental Requiem, a piano concerto, two lengthy works for orchestra and dozens of chamber works. You could say Brahms developed a complex thanks to Beethoven’s legacy — he, Johannes, was the chosen successor. As a result, we get a symphony that wrestles with demons, finds beauty and playfulness around us, and finally stands on higher ground, like a preacher to the flock, eyes widened and fists shaking.

The orchestra plunged into this complex, emotional narrative, fully invested in every bit of the drama. More tender moments in the music were led by the prinicipal winds and brass. Concertmaster Michael Davis soared at the end of the second movement. Oboist Jennifer Potochnic was sublime, and her richly delivered solos lingered long after their ending. During the symphony’s driving moments, Abrams pushed the orchestra to the edge, almost saying “Let’s try to get even closer!” He was as much a leader as a cheerleader, giving validation to an ensemble that knew exactly what to do. The final movement, an operatic apotheosis, was a statement in and of itself triumphing for Brahms and the Louisville Orchestra.

Louisville Orchestra Announces Ambitious and Unique 2015-2016 Season; New Logo

Teddy Abrams

The second season of Teddy Abrams’ music directorship with the Louisville Orchestra was announced tonight at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Where last season was programmed, roughly, half by Abrams and half by Music Director Emeritus Jorge Mester, 2015-2016 is mostly Abrams, with two concerts led by Mester.

There is nothing restrained or timid next season — this is not an orchestra playing it safe. In fact, one could argue that this season is full of risks, artistically and financially. Producing works that require a large orchestra, and most on next season do, can add up. But this doesn’t feel like opulence, rather what we see here is an orchestra trying to earn back a reputation for being adventurous and innovative.

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Jubilant Sykes

What has typically been a glitz and glamour, concerto-focused Fanfara, complete with high-price soloist, is now called “Opening Night” and looks to be the most ambitious season opener ever by the Louisville Orchestra, and possibly among any American orchestra of similar budget or market size. If you thought “Carmina Burana” was extravagant, Abrams will unleash Leonard Bernstein’s eclectic “Mass” to open the season on September 26th at 8pm. Jubilant Sykes will sing the Celebrant, a role that garnered him a GRAMMY nomination in 2009. Bernstein’s musical theater work calls for two orchestras (one in the pit and one on stage), two soloists, two choirs, a rock band, and “street musicians,” which includes 45 singers and percussion. Composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Mass juxtaposes traditional Latin Mass texts with new lyrics by with Bernstein himself, Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”) and Paul Simon.

Now the tone is set for one of the most unique seasons this city has ever seen, replete with premieres and collaborations. Abrams, the composer, has scheduled himself for two new works: a fanfare in March and a work for “Community Collaborators.” In late January the orchestra will feature a commission from students at Abrams’ alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music. A young American composer named Chase Morrin will write and perform a new piano concerto as part of a “Festival of American Music.”

Cast in two parts in March and April, the festival includes Mason Bates’ “Mothership,” for orchestra and electronica (a laptop), premiered in 2011 by the YouTube Symphony and viewed live by two million people on YouTube. Bates is paired with his fellow Californian John Adams’ “Harmonielehre” (German for “study of harmony”), a 40-minute work for large orchestra. Abrams will be the soloist in Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, and the latter’s post-war Symphony No. 3 concludes the festival.

Another collaboration takes the orchestra and Louisville Ballet relationship beyond The Nutcracker for two works in March: a choreographed Philip Glass Violin Concerto and Stravinsky’s dark burlesque “Petrouchka.”

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Bela Fleck

Among this season’s soloists are pianist William Wolfram playing Rachmaninoff’s second concerto with Jorge Mester, violinist Augustin Hadelich tackling the monumental violin concerto of Brahms and Bela Fleck closing the season with his banjo concerto The Imposter, a work commissioned by the Nashville Symphony.

Bob Bernhardt’s Pops Series brings a few notable soloists, too, opening with Family Guy creator and crooner Seth MacFarlane singing American Songbook standards. MacFarlane released an album in 2011 of songs from the 40s and 50s, and viewers of Family Guy will know him as the voice of Stewie. Randy Jackson (of the band Zebra, not American Idol) will perform as Robert Plant with Brent Havens conducting, Ann Hampton Callaway will sing the Streisand Songbook, and Pink Martini, a group that includes vocalist Storm Large, joins the Louisville Orchestra on March 19th.

Returning for more to-be-announced concerts are the Family Concert Series, Music Without Borders, WOW! Series events, Magic of Music and Holiday concerts. The orchestra also unveiled new logos at Friday’s post-concert announcement.

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Review: Louisville Orchestra’s Ravel and Shostakovich, and Mozart with Chu-Fang Huang

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All good art has a superficial layer that is adequate for enjoyment. What appears beneath the surface, however, is detail, revelation and honesty. The Louisville Orchestra’s first concert in 2015, conducted by Music Director Emeritus Jorge Mester, featured Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 — each capable of revealing a hidden truth.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was originally written as a set of piano pieces for two children: Mimi and Jean Godebski. That the music was written for children (and their small hands) belies the inventiveness and genius of this work, especially in its most performed version for orchestra. Anything Ravel touches with his orchestration turns to gold: Mussorgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Debussy’s Sarabande and Danse, his own Tombeau de Couperin and this suite.

To only listen to this as music about fairy tales is missing the point that Ravel’s score is perfect. It is delicate and balanced, and the orchestra obliged the composer’s vision with a colorful and nuanced performance. Maestro Mester provided minimal coaxing, instead letting the orchestra be an ensemble. Of note was principal clarinetist Andrea Levine’s tender and velvety solo in the fourth movement. And nitpicking, a few exposed violin passages, both in Ravel and Shostakovich, lacked cohesion and focus.

Ms. Huang’s debut in Louisville also means her debut with this Mozart Piano Concerto No. 18, but the newness of the work to her was mostly unnoticeable. Overall it was a safe and comfortable performance, but dismissing Mozart’s eighteenth concerto as enjoyable, like Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, misses the point. Its depth lies in the details beneath the surface.

In the first and last movements we saw Ms. Huang the consummate technician, showing brilliant skill and elegance with her craft. But dazzling as it was, the middle movement showed us her artistry and depth. Mozart was an opera composer and his dramatic tendencies are often found in his concertos. The orchestra’s introduction sets up the piano’s “aria” and Ms. Huang gave her Steinway the most cantabile treatment.

After intermission, Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra concluded with the dark and perplexing Symphony No. 6 by Dmitri Shostakovich — one that Leonard Bernstein called “a body without a head.” Formally, yes, there isn’t an allegro (fast) first movement. But it also may mean that the first movement (the torso in this metaphor) is all heart. For an unbroken twenty minutes, Shostakovich is brutally honest. Yes, this is a sorrowful time and, yes, there is little hope. the orchestra stayed attentive and energized through this desolation, giving us a clear picture of Shostakovich’s psyche. The closing movements (loud and fast) were ferocious, but in light of this context — beneath the surface — they are less about hope or triumph, and more about irony.

The Louisville Orchestra’s first concert in 2015 featured Music Director Emeritus Jorge Mester with pianist Chu-Fang Huang, making her Louisville debut. The second performance is Friday, January 16th at 8pm in Whitney Hall. Classical 90.5’s Alan Brandt will be joined by Jorge Mester for the pre-concert talk starting at 7pm.

REVIEW: An Orchestra, Almost, In Your Living Room

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The Louisville Orchestra continued its Neighborhood Series “Music Without Borders” last night, with about an hour of music, to a full house at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Prospect. Billed as a casual concert, the orchestra played a mix of light stage music paired with a couple weightier movements from concertos and symphonies.

Rossini’s overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) made a strong first impression, and for about 7 minutes we were listening in a 19th-century opera house, not a church.

Incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the calling card of a genius named Felix Mendelssohn, a fact underscored by Teddy Abrams in his address to the audience. Mendelssohn’s music is often confused with that of an older composer, not one who died at the age of 38. The fact remains that Mendelssohn, like Mozart, was an anomaly in human achievement. Though Mendelssohn, unlike Mozart, still rests on a second tier in our musical pantheon, coming from that period still reeling from someone named Ludwig van Beethoven.

The brilliant overture, both in intellect and luster, opens with four shimmering chords in the woodwinds, a reference to the four days and “Four nights that will quickly dream away the time,” spoken by Hippolyta. What follows is a blistering forty seconds for the violins, at their most exposed, flittering lightly on their strings. Last night the violins held together, never out of control, but lacking the precision needed for this difficult passage, and similar ones that followed, to sound crisp. Its Scherzo, a jaunty interlude that precedes the entrance of Puck and the Fairies in Act II, bounced and danced, ending with a long, unbroken phrase gracefully played by principal flutist, Kathy Karr.

Spencer Sharp, winner of the 2014 Association of the Louisville Orchestra Concerto Competition, played the first movement of the Dvořák violin concerto with assuredness. Abrams’ account of the first movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” was impassioned and brooding. Like Mendelssohn, we may never come to terms with Schubert’s short, prolific life.

Beethoven, known for his anguish, showed us a playful and cheeky side with the Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens and the King Stephen Overture. The latter is Beethoven as a caricature of himself: grandiose statements, perky tunes and rousing anthems.

“Music Without Borders” implies a boundary exists, namely in Whitney Hall or the Brown Theater, and between an audience and the orchestra. The audience last night looked no different than the audience at Whitney Hall. The concept is right, but maybe next season will include concerts in Shawnee, Portland or Pleasure Ridge Park.

Music Without Borders continues tonight at 7:30pm, Ogle Center IUS, and tomorrow at 3:00pm at Congregation Adath Jeshrun.