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Kevin Cole was a last-minute surprise last October when he stepped in as an eleventh-hour replacement to lead the Louisville Orchestra in George Gershwin’s iconic “Rhapsody in Blue.” The world-renowned Gershwin expert, who critics say plays like the composer himself, returns this week to lead the Orchestra in Gershwin’s other rhapsody, a later work that went by many names (including “New York Rhapsody”) before settling, finally, on the simple “Second Rhapsody.”

Cole closed the second half of a strong performance Thursday morning, conducted by new music director Teddy Abrams, that pays homage to American music. Cole is a delight to watch at the piano—his hands fly like hummingbirds across the keys, trilling through those Gershwin flourishes like a native language. His encore, a fluid, masterful 10-song Gershwin medley, was almost as thrilling as the main event. 

Watch a brief video of Cole’s performance on WUOL’s Lunchtime Classics: 

The Louisville Orchestra will perform “Copland and Gershwin” again Friday night at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts’ Whitney Hall.

The program opens with Richard Rodgers’ overture to “Oklahoma!,” a joyful and expansive entry into the program’s American experience. Abrams is a dynamic force at the podium, and his passionate, full-body conducting adds a fun kinetic element to the Orchestra’s solid performance.

The first half of the program is anchored by German composer Kurt Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins,” with libretto by German expressionist Berthold Brecht. “The Seven Deadly Sins” is set in America, a coast-to-coast exploration of the skewed morality of a young woman who leaves home to seek her fortune as a dancer and courtesan, in order to help her family build a home in Louisiana. Powerhouse vocal soloist Storm Large sings the parts of Anna 1 and Anna 2, “sisters” who are essentially two halves of the same character, with a wry vulnerability, a surprising amount of humor, and no small amount of sex appeal. Vocal quartet Hudson Shad sings the parts of Anna’s family, a role they’ve filled perhaps more times than any other ensemble. 

After Cole and Gershwin opened the second half of the performance, Abrams brought it home with Aaron Copland’s ”Rodeo,” the 1941 ballet written for choreographer Agnes de Mille. The four episodes of the symphonic version cover a wide emotional terrain, from the wistful oboe in “Corral Nocturne” to the triumphant strings and horns in the rousing finale “Hoe-Down.” (Yes, “Hoe-Down” scored those old “Beef! It’s What’s For Dinner!” commercials.)

The Orchestra’s Music Without Borders series provides ample opportunity to catch Abrams conducting the ensemble throughout the season. Starting Oct. 9, Abrams will conduct at a variety of institutions, from St. Stephen Baptist Church (1018 S. 15th Street) and Congregation Adath Jeshurun (2401 Woodbourne Avenue) to Middletown United Baptist Church and Indiana University Southeast. Here’s a full schedule.