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 Louisville Orchestra—is his first major composition, clocking in at around 30 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 20 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 principal 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.
Daniel Gilliam is the program director for WFPL’s sister station, WUOL Classical 90.5.