Visiting conductors and composers often bring up the Louisville Orchestra’s legendary First Edition commissioning and recording days in the mid-20th century. The First Edition project put Louisville on lots of maps.
The Louisville Orchestra has tried to reclaim some of that history since a youthful Teddy Abrams became music director in 2014. His appointment was exactly what the orchestra needed after almost a decade of turmoil and anxiety, a time fraught with staff turnover, strikes, and contract negotiations filled with tension and animosity between management and musicians.
But in 2019, when commissions are common even in the smallest orchestras and communities, the Louisville Orchestra is hoping to carve new prominence for itself with its Festival of American Music.
Now in its fourth year, the festival’s programming has ranged from non-classical artists like bluegrass front man Michael Cleveland and singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens to straight contemporary concert music by composers such as Andrew Norman and Julia Wolfe.
The first half of this year’s festival, which takes place over two weekends, began Feb. 23 with Copland’s Appalachian Spring ballet featuring new choreography by Andrea Schermoly and danced by the Louisville Ballet. Also on the first concert was a fully staged “folk opera” by Rachel Grimes, a Kentucky composer who has a history of music-making in her home state that dates back to Louisville’s 1990s punk-underground scene.
The festival’s second weekend sought to draw connections between jazz and classical music in a concert called “The Jazz Influence.” It also served as a collaborative effort between the Louisville Orchestra and the University of Louisville jazz program, including a commission from a faculty composer, a student combo on stage, and two faculty soloists.
Composer Gabriel Evens teaches piano and composition at the University of Louisville. His eight-minute work Run For It, for orchestra and jazz combo, started with an energetic statement (complete with ride cymbal) from the orchestra and combo, with sounds hinting at film scores and symphonic jazz, laying down a canvas on which the university’s student jazz ensemble improvised. After each soloist’s allotted time, Run For It comes to an abrupt halt. For the orchestra, Even’s composition didn’t afford much more than background chords and flourishes, with little thematic development.
It turns out “The Jazz Influence” concept was conceived with a broad vision not only of how traditional jazz has melded with the “classical” genre, but also how experimental jazz has played a role in the development of American classical music. I’d go further and say this concert was more about how modern classical music has infiltrated the jazz universe.
Enter Tyshawn Sorey, a composer and multi-instrumentalist, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, and creator of seven albums of experimental jazz, soundscapes, and long improvised ruminations (his latest recording, Pillars, consists of three tracks, each over an hour long). His commissioned work For Bill Dixon and A. Spencer Barefield was introduced by Abrams from the stage (there were no program notes for this piece) with a fairly lengthy description of how he came to know Sorey’s music and what the audience should expect. While I understand the desire to frame modern music with context and insight, Abrams’ frenetic explanation was almost antithetical to Sorey’s introspective piece.
What did help was the lighting change in Whitney Hall. The familiar dim, vanilla-washed hall was reduced to darkness with just the stand lights on stage for the 27 players and conductor. The effect brought some quick, positive reactions from a few audience members around me and provided a better way to listen and absorb Sorey’s sparse, glacial score.
University of Louisville jazz faculty trumpeter Ansyn Banks and guitarist Craig Wagner were soloists sitting within the orchestra, and emblems of the work’s dedicatees: the late Dixon, a trumpeter and experimental jazz icon, and Barefield, a jazz guitarist based in Detroit. Sorey uses the trumpet and electric guitar to outline and occasionally punctuate a hazy texture of brass, percussion and strings. The 11-minute tribute barely cracks above a whisper.
In Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Abrams directed the orchestra from the piano, embellishing the keyboard solo along the way and taking two extended improvised cadenzas. Principal clarinetist Andrea Levine’s curtain-raising solo was heartfelt and full of personality, and the orchestra showed its best work of the evening here with infectious energy and a tight performance.
The big lift on the program was Michael Tilson Thomas’ Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, a free setting of Carl Sandburg’s poem from the 1920s by the same name for soprano soloist, a jazz band, orchestra, and two backup singers. Soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who has made this role her calling card, gave an assured and charismatic performance, making the angular vocal lines seem fluid and the crooning effortless, painting the music with an infinite color palette.
This is a decadent showpiece, with moments of subtle and thoughtful beauty, born from an ambitious idea. Four Preludes was least effective in the “pop” music played by the jazz band that juts in and out of the more traditional contemporary sound of the score. The balance between the band and orchestra was uneven, and the backup singers were hard to hear over the amplified instruments. It’s a common pitfall in scores that try to blend popular with more esoteric styles: The house sound is unpredictable (prone to extreme dynamic shifts from the amplified instruments); the musical material can sound out of place and a little corny to 21st–century ears (see Bernstein’s Mass).
The point was made clear, though: Jazz is part of the concert music universe. But Saturday’s concert was uneven and lacked a larger, compelling narrative. Each work was worthy in its own space, but the concert experience was halting and lacked a natural momentum. Maybe the works could have been ordered differently.
What the festival showed was the Louisville Orchestra’s willingness to view its work through a different lens; and Louisville is fortunate to have Abrams, who is excited about taking risks and bucking local traditions. His energy and intelligence are capable of reviving the orchestra’s historic importance, even in a crowded field on a muddy track.