On September 27 the Louisville Orchestra (LO) launches its sixth season under the galvanizing leadership of Teddy Abrams, variously described as “an unstoppable force” (Arts-Louisville), the “next Leonard Bernstein” (WQXR), and “the orchestra’s great young hope” (Wall Street Journal). Crowned by Decca Gold’s upcoming release of The Order of Nature, a genre-bending new symphonic suite created and recorded with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, the characteristically adventurous 2019–20 lineup combines music by no fewer than 18 living composers, innovative approaches to the classics, thoughtfully curated thematic programming, interdisciplinary collaborations with local artists and institutions, guest appearances by a stellar array of conductors and soloists, and a debut at Louisville’s state-of-the-art new performance space. As San Francisco Classical Voice observes, under Abrams’s leadership, the LO has become a “a model for other orchestras, large and small, across the country.”
Highlighting the history and vitality of Louisville, the 2019-20 Classics season opens with a focus on some of today’s most influential young artists and an account of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, whose composition was informed by a Louisville musicologist (Sep 28). The annual Festival of American Music continues to celebrate the orchestra’s hometown, with performances by the renowned gospel virtuosos of the city’s St. Stephen Baptist Church Choir (Feb 22) and local avant-garde jazz saxophonist Jacob Duncan (March 14). October 18 brings the eagerly anticipated release of The Order of Nature; violins that survived the Holocaust anchor a special Jewish-themed program in collaboration with the touring exhibit “Violins of Hope” and the Louisville Ballet (Oct 26); an evening of atmospheric water-themed music includes recent works by Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams and Emmy Award-winner Garth Neustadter (Oct 12); and the Music Director and orchestra offer an illuminating deconstruction of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in the popular “Teddy Talks” series (Jan 18). After making their debut at the newly opened Paristown Hall this fall (Nov 2), Abrams and the LO return to the forward-looking performance space for programs featuring Gabriel Kahane (Jan 10), a dramatization of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale by puppet master David Bridel (March 6), and The Blue Hour, a group composition by Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, Caroline Shaw and Sarah Kirkland Snider (April 24). Paired with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, it is also The Blue Hour that helps draw the orchestra’s season to a thrilling close (April 25). Cross-genre collaboration: The Order of Nature on Decca Gold, Oct 18
In September 2017, the Louisville Orchestra went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Traditional Chart with the release of All In. Marking the ensemble’s first new recording in almost three decades and its first for Decca Gold, this featured Unified Field, an original orchestral composition by the multi-talented Music Director himself. Now, two years later, the orchestra looks forward to the release on October 18 of The Order of Nature, its next album for the same label. Captured live, in a single take, at last year’s Festival of American Music, it represents a cross-genre collaboration between Abrams and singer-songwriter Jim James, frontman of Grammy-nominated Louisville rock group My Morning Jacket. Abrams and James first worked together on Float Rumble Rest, a tribute to the late boxing legend and Louisville native Muhammad Ali, which was scored for piano and electric guitar. By contrast, The Order of Nature is a large-scale symphonic suite combining original, evocative songs by James – “one of rock music’s most powerful singers and one of its most fearless sonic architects” (Rolling Stone) – with the cinematic scope of Abrams’s most potent orchestral writing.
To create their suite, the two drew inspiration from the absence of hate they found in nature. James says: “Nature doesn’t know how to hate. Humans are part of nature obviously, but why do we have this thing called hatred and how do we get rid of it? We’re fighting nature and thinking we can prevail over nature, but we’re killing each other and killing the planet.” He adds: “It was also inspiring to hear what Teddy wrote. I really enjoyed just giving him this seed of a song and just watching it flower.” Abrams and James discuss their process further in “Collaboration,” the first episode of a three-part mini-documentary series about the making of The Order of Nature.
Opening Night: “From the New World”
Abrams and the orchestra launch the 2019-20 Signature Classics season with a program that celebrates today’s vibrant music scene while also engaging the LO’s remarkable past. This features solo appearances by three influential young musicians, all of whom were named, like Abrams himself, among WQXR’s “19 for 19” artists to watch this year: mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who joins the orchestra for favorites by Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Gershwin; violinist Elena Urioste, who makes her Louisville debut with an account of Ravel’s Tzigane; and violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who reprises her “breathtaking” (Broadcast Music) interpretation of Orchard in Fog (2018), the concerto composed for her by Emmy-winner Adam Schoenberg. The program concludes with Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”), a work first conceived just days after the composer read an article in which Louisville musicologist Mildred Hill made the case for African American spirituals as the basis for a distinctly American style (Sep 28).
Like almost all concerts in the Classics season, Opening Night will be preceded the previous morning by a related event in the affordably priced Coffee Series. Also led by Abrams, this pairs Dvořák’s masterpiece with three Louisville originals: works commissioned and premiered by the orchestra from Lutosławski, Ibert and LO founder Robert Whitney (Sep 27). Also this fall: “Violins of Hope” and “From the Sea” Abrams leads the orchestra in two further Signature Classics concerts this fall, each preceded by a related event in the Coffee Series. “From the Sea” (Oct 12) couples two beloved ocean-themed classics from Europe before the wars – Sibelius’s The Oceanides and Debussy’s La Mer – with two recent American evocations of natural water. The first of these, John Luther Adams’s Become River, is one of the composer’s series of landscape-inspired pieces that also includes his 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Become Ocean, while the second, Seaborne, was written by young Emmy-winning TV and film composer Garth Neustadter for the Percussion Collective. The celebrated ensemble joins the orchestra for the first performance of the work in its fully orchestrated form, to the accompaniment of stunning film footage from Hawaii.
There follows a special program themed to “Violins of Hope” (Oct 26), a traveling exhibition of instruments played by Jewish violinists before and during the Holocaust, now painstakingly restored by Israeli violinmaker Amnon Weinstein as a tribute to the dead. Marking the end of the exhibit’s ten days on view at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum, members of the orchestra will give voice to these rare instruments, with LO Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz – a “master craftsman” who coaxes “magnificent sounds and spine-tingling notes out of his instrument” (Arts-Louisville) – as soloist in three pieces from John Williams’s score to Schindler’s List. Also on the program are From the Diary of Anne Frank by Abrams’s mentor Michael Tilson Thomas; Paul Schoenfield’s Klezmer Rondos No. 2, featuring LO Principal Flutist Kathleen Karr; and a collaboration with the Louisville Ballet and its resident choreographer Andrea Schermoly on Judith, A Choreographic Poem. Conceived as a “dance concerto” and originally commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Schuman and iconic choreographer Martha Graham, this dramatizes the biblical story of Judith, who saved the besieged Jewish city of Bethulia by seducing and beheading Assyrian invader Holofernes.
Next spring: 5th Festival of American Music, “Teddy Talks” and more
Spring brings the fifth edition of the annual Festival of American Music, which continues to celebrate the glorious diversity of new and recent homegrown composition. First, Abrams and the orchestra join Grammy-winning soul-funk organist Cory Henry and the local gospel virtuosos of the St. Stephen Baptist Church Choir for a program featuring Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings (Feb 22). Two weeks later, the festival pairs a new work by avant-garde jazz composer and Louisville native Jacob Duncan, who joins the orchestra as saxophone soloist, with Mason Bates’s Art of War, a symphony about soldiers, weapons and the collision of civilizations (March 14). When the National Symphony Orchestra premiered Art of War at Washington’s Kennedy Center last year, the Washington Post confessed: “I’ve seldom seen an NSO audience quite so excited about a new work.” Both Duncan’s and Bates’s works will also receive preview performances in the Coffee Series (March 13).
Now entering its third season, “Teddy Talks” – a program reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s 1950s “Omnibus” series – also returns next year. Speaking to Abrams’s commitment to audience engagement and accessibility, the program provides a platform for him to give audiences a window into the composer’s mind, entertainingly deconstructing a piece of music before reassembling it in a full orchestral performance. Following the Music Director’s exposition of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which made “a good case against the decline of classical music” and left Arts-Louisville “absolutely enthralled,” the subject of 2019-20’s “Teddy Talks” is Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (Jan 18), with a Coffee Concert preview the previous day (Jan 17).
Paristown Hall debut
Besides presenting its Classics Season, the Louisville Orchestra looks forward to making its debut at the city’s newest performance space this fall, with a special program titled “Teddy’s Soundcheck” (Nov 2; details TBA). A 28,000-square-foot venue designed to host up to 2,000 standing patrons, Old Forester’s Paristown Hall opened this past July with millennial audiences in mind. For their next Paristown appearance, Abrams and the orchestra join forces with Gabriel Kahane, “one of the finest, most searching songwriters of the day” (New Yorker), to perform newly orchestrated versions of songs from the singer-songwriter’s hit album Book of Travelers, which he describes as “a plea for empathy” (Jan 10). The orchestra returns to Paristown under Abrams’s leadership for a performance of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, as brought to life with a cast of life-size puppets by David Bridel, “one of the most inventive, scholarly, and vastly challenging voices on the current theatrical scene” (Los Angeles Times). Titled “The Devil’s Tale,” this third Paristown program also features Hiraeth by Sarah Kirkland Snider, whom the Philadelphia Inquirer calls a “significant voice on the American music landscape” (March 6). For their final Paristown date of the season, Abrams conducts The Blue Hour. Set to texts by American poet Carolyn Forché, this milestone group composition draws on the talents of a who’s who of today’s most noteworthy female composers, who include some of the LO’s favorite past collaborators: Snider, Louisville native Rachel Grimes, Puerto Rico-born Angélica Negrón, Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova, who joins the orchestra for the performance (April 24).
There will be multiple further opportunities to catch both the Kahane collaboration (Jan 8–11) and A Soldier’s Tale (March 4–7) in the orchestra’s innovative Music Without Borders series, which takes the ensemble into non-traditional neighborhood venues, including community centers, places of worship, and schools. Similarly, Abrams and the LO look forward to reprising The Blue Hour for their final, season-closing concert in the Classics Series, when it shares the program with Bartók’s last and most enduringly popular orchestral work, the masterful Concerto for Orchestra (April 25).
Guest conductors: Parameswaran, Cox, Hotoda and Lefkowitz
Further enriching the season, the orchestra performs three Classics programs with a trio of guest conductors, each of whom helms a related Coffee concert the preceding day. Vinay Parameswaran, Assistant Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and former Associate Conductor of the Nashville Symphony, conducts Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry (2012) and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, with LO principal cellist Nicholas Finch as soloist (Nov 23). Roderick Cox, winner of the 2018 Sir George Solti Conducting Award and former Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, leads the world premiere of Emotive Transformations by James Lee III, “a composer who has what it takes. And has a future” (Baltimore Sun) alongside Brahms’s Third Symphony and Grieg’s Piano Concerto featuring Bulgarian pianist Anna Petrova (Feb 1). Rei Hotoda, Music Director of the Fresno Philharmonic, couples Missy Mazzoli’s River Rouge Transfiguration (2013) with the Second Symphony by Rachmaninoff and the Eighth by Beethoven, whose 250th birthday celebrations fall next year (April 11). Finally, to complete the Louisville Orchestra’s 2019-20 lineup, versatile concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz exchanges his violin for a baton, taking the podium for works by Haydn, Brahms and Mendelssohn at multiple alternative city venues in the Music Without Borders series (Oct 30–Nov 8).