Arts and Culture

Here in Louisville we’re, regularly reminded, usually by visiting composers and conductors,  with a hushed, mythic tone and a sense of awe, about our orchestra’s legendary First Edition commissioning and recording days in the early- to mid-20th century. At one time (long, long ago), few orchestras were commissioning new works on a regular basis — much less recording them. The First Edition project, a brainchild of Mayor Charles Farnsley, was a phenomenon built on equal parts ingenuity and luck, that put Louisville on lots of maps.

The Louisville Orchestra has tried to reclaim some of that history since Teddy Abrams arrived in 2014, as the youngest conductor to lead a professional orchestra in the United States. His appointment was exactly what the orchestra needed after almost a decade of turmoil and anxiety, blotted by staff turnover, work stoppages and contract negotiations filled with tension and animosity between management and musicians. (Proper credit is also due to Jim Welch, past president of the LO board; and Andrew Kipe, former executive director of the LO, who provided positive, unwavering leadership alongside Abrams.)

But in 2019 when recordings are ubiquitous, and commissions are common even in the smallest orchestras and communities, standing out in a saturated, niche field becomes as much of a marketing strategy as an artistic endeavor. The Louisville Orchestra is hoping to carve a place for itself with their Festival of American Music.

Now in its fourth year, the festival’s programming has oscillated between non-classical artists and genres like bluegrass frontman Michael Cleveland and singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddons, to straight contemporary concert music like Andrew Norman and Julia Wolfe.

Taking place over two weekends, the first half of this season’s festival began on February 23 with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, with new choreography by Andrea Schermoly 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 long history of music-making in the commonwealth, dating back to Louisville’s 1990s punk/underground scene.

The second half of the festival, this past weekend, sought to draw connections between jazz and classical 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.

Gabriel Evens, the composer commissioned, joined the faculty of the University of Louisville in 2016, and teaches piano, composing and arranging as part of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program. His Run For It for orchestra and jazz combo is an eight-minute, through-composed piece that doesn’t give the orchestra much more than background chords and flourishes, with little thematic development. It starts with an energetic statement (complete with ride cymbal) from the orchestra and combo, with sounds hinting at film scores and symphonic jazz, laying a canvas for the U of L Student Jazz Ensemble to improvise over. After each soloist’s allotted time, Run For It comes to an abrupt halt through a surprising coda.

It turns out “The Jazz Influence” concept was conceived with a broad vision of not just how traditional jazz has melded with the “classical” genre, but how experimental jazz has also played a role in the development of American classical music. I’d go further and say this concert was more about how classical music (contemporary styles) has infiltrated the jazz universe, more than the other way around.

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 typical dim, vanilla-washed hall was reduced to darkness with just the stand lights on stage for the 27 players (and conductor). It was an effect that brought some quick, positive reactions from a few audience members around me, and provided a better way for listening and absorbing Sorey’s sparse, glacial score.

U of L 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.

You can’t do a jazz/classical concert without at least mentioning George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and it was more than mentioned. Teddy Abrams directed the orchestra from the piano, embellishing the piano solo along the way and taking two extended cadenzas (completely improvised). 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 an 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 her lines with an infinite color palette. This is a decadent show piece, 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. This is a common pitfall in scores that try and blend popular with more esoteric styles: the house sound is unpredictable (prone to extreme dynamic shifts from the amplified instruments) with musical material that sounds out of place and a little corny to 21st century ears (see Bernstein’s Mass).

The point was made clear: jazz is part of the concert/classical 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 halted, and lacked a natural (or artificial) momentum. Maybe the works could have been ordered differently.

What these festivals show is the orchestra’s willingness to think about their work through a different lens, and Louisville is fortunate to have Teddy 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. A “First Edition” is likely to never happen again, but perhaps we’ll keep reinventing ourselves to become more relevant to our community.

Daniel Gilliam is program director of 90.5 WUOL (Louisville Public Media), he leads the Concert Talks before the Louisville Orchestra concerts, and is a composer.

This article was first published on Classical Voice North America.