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    Photos by Adam Mescan

    Remember those beef commercials from the ’90s, where a family sat down to an artery-packing meal and a narrator said in a deep voice, “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner”? If I’m not ringing a bell, let YouTube refresh your memory real quick. There’s a lively Western tune in the background that’ll bury itself deep in your ear. Remember now? It’s the hoe-down from Rodeo, the “cowboy ballet” by the giant of American music Aaron Copland. The tune immediately conjures lassos, grand mesas, cattle kicking up clouds of dust across the plain as storm clouds approach. Except it’s not actually a Western tune at all.

    “That piece is an eastern Kentucky fiddle tune,” says Teddy Abrams, conductor of the Louisville Orchestra. Copland more or less copied and pasted “Bonaparte’s Retreat” from a 1937 Library of Congress field recording of Kentucky fiddler William H. Stepp. Which means the most famous “Western” piece in the American canon actually came out of the bluegrass state. “Very few people know that,” Abrams says. “Most people just assume it’s a Western-sounding tune.”

    Concertgoers got a musical version of this history lesson a couple weeks ago during the first show in the third annual Festival of American Music. Just before the orchestra tore through Rodeo, Abrams wheeled an upright piano to the front of the stage and brought out Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley and award-winning bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland to break down Copland’s process. Abrams explained how the composer had lifted songs directly from the American West (and, apparently, Appalachia) and orchestrated them into a more authentic composition than he could have built from scratch. Abrams demonstrated the tunes — hokey to the modern ear — with Shelley and Cleveland, drawing warm laughter and applause from the crowd at the Kentucky Center.

    The Louisville Orchestra in rehearsal.

    Rodeo was a vivacious finale at a show that put Kentucky (and Kentucky-influenced) musicians on par with one of history’s greatest composers, rather than relegating them to a pops program. After an orchestral piece by Edgar Meyer, a folk/classical bassist who Abrams calls “probably the most important (orchestral) bass soloist who’s ever lived,” the orchestra welcomed several performers, one after the other, onto the stage to play their own songs. Local arrangers scored the music of Shelley, Cleveland, Louisville singer Tyrone Cotton and folk singer/harpist Lizzie No for orchestra. “Anytime on our classics series we do anything, regardless of what genre it is, we treat it just like we would a great master of the past,” Abrams tells me. “We treat something that we just arranged for a soloist who might not be considered classical the same way we would treat a Brahms or Beethoven or Mahler composition.”

    As Shelley sang, it was like a silk ribbon was floating over the strings section; Cotton’s raspy crooning frayed that ribbon’s edges; and Michael Cleveland and his band Flamekeeper set it on fire, turning the orchestra into, as Cleveland put it to uproarious applause, “a 60-piece bluegrass band.” But the highlight of the guest artist portion of the concert was Lizzie No’s three-song set, a masterful example of narrative folk lyricism and vocal control with smart arrangements hampered only by an incongruous drum set, which — either because the percussionist was stiff and metric or restrained by the score, or maybe just because kits don’t jive with orchestras — stuck out like a seersucker suit any day but the first Saturday in May. Chock it up to experimentation.

    You won’t hear anything like that concert anywhere else, and that’s by design. “We want people to feel like, even if they went to New York or San Francisco or LA or Chicago, that this would still be totally unique, and something that they would not be able to find,” Abrams says.

    That also applies to the second concert of the festival on Saturday. The program goes beyond the borders of Kentucky to celebrate the larger state of modern American music. The orchestra will perform works by spouses Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, both celebrated contemporary composers known for starting the innovative music organization Bang on a Can. Also on the bill: Louisville’s own Jim James.

    ​The Louisville Orchestra in rehearsal.

    The most ambitious piece in the concert is probably Gordon’s Natural History, a work Abrams premiered with the Britt Festival Orchestra at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Commissioned for the centennial of the National Parks Service, Natural History is a massive work written for orchestra, full chorus, an additional 30-odd brass and percussion players and several members of the Klamath Native American tribes, which consider Crater Lake a sacred place — “no different than St. Peter’s for Catholics, or parts of Jerusalem for Jews and the Kaaba for Muslims,” Abrams says. Gordon spent 10 days in a cabin at Crater Lake in a winter that saw 12-foot snow accumulation, learning about the music and culture of the Klamath people. “Every single part of the landscape tells a story or has a message for the native people. So when they say it’s sacred, part of what they’re saying is that the land is holding their stories, their moral and ethical teachings, in the same way that you might open a holy text and read it,” he says. “I wanted to incorporate that in this piece; I wanted to incorporate their words.”

    Members of the tribes will perform with the orchestra on Saturday, along with 30 extra brass and percussion players. In the piece’s first performance, the additional musicians were spread out among the hills at Crater Lake; they’ll be stationed throughout the hall at the Kentucky Center for the Louisville performance, producing a surround-sound effect.

    “Most people don’t really know Native American music. Most people don’t even know any Native Americans. Most people have gone their entire lives in this country without ever really experiencing that culture,” Abrams says. “And it’s remarkable — their music is extremely powerful.”

    The concert will conclude with a nine-song suite Abrams and James collaborated on. Two of the songs are Jim James classics, two were written by other composers and five will be world premieres. James recorded demos with only guitar and voice, and Abrams transferred them to orchestra, creating a through-composed work that doesn’t stop between each song, but instead develops themes across the entire suite. The slow builds common in James’ work and the unique color of his voice gave Abrams a lot to work with. “This is very, very complexly orchestrated,” he says. “This resembles more Strauss and Mahler than it does a pops chart.”

    Expect more of this kind of experimentation from Abrams. He’s committed to challenging common perceptions of orchestras, broadening their appeal without abandoning the great music of the past. “I’ve talked about this a lot, but the orchestra is for everyone,” he says. “And one of the ways to make it for everyone is to recognize that in the 21st century here in America, we need to play music that’s of the 21st century from this place — the same way that Bach’s audiences were lucky enough to have somebody composing in their midst, in their era, in their country and place. We should have that same opportunity.”

    For more information or tickets to Saturday's concert, click here.

     

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    About Dylon Jones

    Writer / Reporter / Web Editor: Louisville Magazine

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