Now in its fifth season under the galvanizing leadership of Teddy Abrams, the Louisville Orchestra continues to carve out its unique niche among American orchestras, both by celebrating its storied past and reengaging with the Louisville community to create something radically new. This spring’s fourth annual Festival of American Music perfectly showcases this combination of qualities; the first program, “Kentucky Spring,” features the world premiere of the folk opera and film The Way Forth by Louisville native Rachel Grimes, an exploration of Kentucky’s history that uses the perspectives of generations of Kentucky women to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of the present day. On the same bill, in collaboration with the Louisville Ballet, is a performance of Aaron’s Copland’s timeless Appalachian Spring, featuring new choreography for the first time in the ballet’s history, by Louisville Ballet choreographer in residence Andrea Schermoly. Two weeks later, the second program, “The Jazz Influence,” features two world premieres of Louisville Orchestra commissions from Gabriel Evens and Tyshawn Sorey and a Louisville premiere by Abrams’s mentor, Michael Tilson Thomas. Gershwin’s jazz-orchestral classic Rhapsody in Blue, featuring Abrams as both pianist and conductor, rounds out the program.
About the launch of this year’s festival, Abrams explains: “The first week of our signature Festival of American Music features two massive creative projects: the world premieres of a new choreography for Appalachian Spring and a large-scale new “folk opera” by Rachel Grimes. The gravity of these undertakings gives this week great significance: Appalachian Spring is rarely seen in its ballet form, and even rarer with a new authorized choreography. For an orchestra that famously worked with Martha Graham herself, this is a very meaningful project in our community. Rachel Grimes’s opera, focusing on Kentucky’s history told through the lenses of strong, historic women, is particularly special as a work of contemporary thematic relevance and for its reimagining of standard musical forms and formats – exactly what we try to explore each season at the Louisville Orchestra.”
Fourth Annual Festival of American Music
Celebrating the glorious diversity of the past hundred years of New World composition, Louisville’s annual Festival of American Music is one of Abrams’s most ambitious signature initiatives to date. It was the festival’s inaugural edition that prompted Arts-Louisville to conclude: “The orchestra, specifically this orchestra, is a living, breathing, evolving, and relevant art form.”
Louisville native Rachel Grimes took part in that inaugural festival: the orchestra performed three new arrangements from her piano suite Book of Leaves, and then performed them again the following season. This season they collaborate on the folk opera The Way Forth, commissioned in part by the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts where it will be presented in Whitney Hall. The work uses music, narration and film to weave together the voices of generations of Kentucky women from 1775 to the present, inspired by a treasure trove of family photos, documents, and letters. As Grimes says of her initial confrontation with these materials: “What to do with all of these random mysterious photos, letters, deeds, clippings, this gorgeous 1908 scrapbook, this ancient Scottish Bible… Who is this woman with the piercing gaze? Why is this woman wearing men’s clothing and sporting a cigar? Is this the old house that burned? So, he really was a miner ‘49er…. and how are we related to him? Why didn’t she finish her college degree until she was 61?? These were some of the questions that led to a few answers and many more questions that my brother and I asked our parents and relatives over the last several years as we made our way through sorting the memorabilia of many generations of Kentuckians.”
Using these documents to piece together and explore lesser-told tales of the historically oppressed, Grimes’s folk opera honors the feminine, the holistic, the emotional legacies of the silenced, the beauty of daily life, and the eternal grace and redemption of time, as symbolized by the great Dix and Kentucky Rivers. An experimental film, co-created with filmmaker Catharine Axley and with the support of Owsley Brown Presents (the production company behind the Louisville Orchestra documentary, Music Makes a City), will accompany the musical work for use in live performance. Following the Louisville premiere, The Way Forth will be presented as part of Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival.
Sharing the program with The Way Forth is a fully staged performance of Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet Appalachian Spring. Legendary choreographer Martha Graham created the original ballet after commissioning the music from Copland, and this performance marks the first time new choreography has been approved by the Copland Foundation since the premiere of that version in 1944. The world premiere choreography is by South African-born Andrea Schermoly, who initially made her name as a dancer with Holland’s Netherlands Dance Theater and is currently choreographer in residence with Louisville Ballet. This event marks the third full co-production between the orchestra and ballet; when they collaborated in 2016 on a program including Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Teddy Abrams’s Unified Fields, Louisville’s WFPL raved: “Collectively, this evening dazzles with the multiple, layered possibilities of collaboration across so many visual and performing art forms.”
On March 9, the second program of the Festival of American Music, “The Jazz Influence,” explores the intersection of classical music and jazz with two world premieres of Louisville Orchestra commissions from Gabriel Evens and Tyshawn Sorey. Evens is another of Louisville’s own: an Assistant Professor of Jazz Piano, Composition and Arranging at Louisville University who recently released The Wrong Waltz with the Gabe Evens Trio, which All About Jazz described as “a fine balance of harmonically rich originals with beautiful singing melodies,” praising Evens himself as “a pianist with a vibrant and robust approach to his composing and playing.” His composition Run For It will feature the University of Louisville Jazz Ensemble along with the orchestra. Sorey, a rising-star virtuoso percussionist and recipient of a 2017 MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, is making his first venture into orchestral composition with a piece titled For Bill Dixon and A. Spencer Barefield, which will feature trumpeter Ansyn Banks and guitarist Craig Wagner. The Wall Street Journal calls Sorey “a composer of radical and seemingly boundless ideas,” while the New Yorker recently noted that he is “among the most formidable denizens of the in-between zone … an extraordinary talent who can see across the entire musical landscape.”
In addition to the two world premieres, “The Jazz Influence” will feature the Louisville premiere of Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, with special guest, Grammy-nominated soprano Measha Brueggergosman. The work was written especially for her by Michael Tilson Thomas, a key mentor to Abrams who was the subject of the “Maverick – A Celebration of MTT” program at last year’s festival, in which he also took part. Finally, these works representing the newest in jazz-influenced orchestral music are juxtaposed with one of the earliest masterpieces in that specialized genre, as Abrams acts as both conductor and pianist for a performance of Gershwin’s pioneering classic, Rhapsody in Blue. This Saturday evening program is preceded on March 8 by a Friday matinee concert in the “Coffee Concert Series,” which will include the entire evening program with the exception of the Sorey premiere.
About the Louisville Orchestra
Established in 1937 through the combined efforts of Louisville mayor Charles Farnsley and conductor Robert Whitney, the Louisville Orchestra is a cornerstone of the Louisville arts community. With the launch of First Edition Recordings in 1947, it became the first American orchestra to own a recording label. Six years later it received a Rockefeller grant of $500,000 to commission, record, and premiere music by living composers, thereby earning a place on the international circuit and an invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall. In 2001, the Louisville Orchestra received the Leonard Bernstein Award for Excellence in Educational Programming, presented annually to a North American orchestra. Continuing its commitment to new music, the Louisville Orchestra has earned 19 ASCAP awards for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music, and was also awarded large grants from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the National Endowment for the Arts, both for the purpose of producing, manufacturing and marketing its historic First Edition Recordings collections. Over the years, the orchestra has performed for prestigious events at the White House, Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and on tour in Mexico City. The feature-length, Gramophone Award-winning documentary Music Makes a City (2010) chronicles the Louisville Orchestra’s founding years.