Must Be The Bourbon: Inclusive Classical Music In Kentucky

kentucky music
LOWF4th by Scott Utterback. Photo courtesy of

One evening last month, I found myself in a room packed full of ardent new music fans, enthusiastically communing with works by living, mostly female composers. I was in a synagogue in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky, and wanted never to leave; having made a case in my last piece for the power of relevance in new music and its untapped potential to engage and inspire audiences, I found myself immersed in a vibrant community where this connection is the rule, not the exception.

I’d flown in from New York for the Louisville Orchestra (LO)’s second annual Festival of American Music, a tableau vivant celebrating the range of musical creativity in our nation today. “It’s this giant adventure,” LO Music Director Teddy Abrams told me. “I hope people feel like they’re in some some kind of caravan…there’s an element of danger and of the unknown, because that’s where art is supposed to sit.” He described the programming process as highly exploratory by necessity. “We are in this enormous space surrounded by untold millions of viewpoints…about how we’re supposed to live now amongst each other. And this music in many ways has tried to open up this dialogue.”

The author with Teddy Abrams. Photo: K. Simon

I had the pleasure of discussing all this with Abrams in his home, a refurbished antiques shop in Louisville’s Nulu district. Here, speakers pipe outdoors the sounds of practice and rehearsals for the enjoyment of the neighborhood; on a given day this could range from classical to klezmer to bluegrass to freewheeling improv. A born collaborator, Abrams weaves an inclination towards art as shared act throughout his work, and exudes the energy of an intensely curious and friendly tornado. That at 29, he’s the youngest music director ever to lead a major American orchestra might be the least interesting thing about him.

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The Festival’s profile expanded this year. Iconic American artists joined as collaborators, including San Francisco Symphony music director (and Abrams’ longtime mentor) Michael Tilson Thomas and pianoman Ben Folds. By design, the two programs I attended featured composers with connections to the Louisville region; by happy coincidence, all but one of them were women. Abrams offered, “this is not about anything but celebrating what the shared element is…female composers don’t need a special concert for themselves.” He described the issue as a linguistic hangup. “If you say ‘composer’ nobody thinks Joni Mitchell. I don’t want people to think Beethoven first! ….‘Composer’ should be a fluid, creative idea. Putting on a concert like this isn’t simply advocating. It’s more of a proof…if you didn’t know these composers, get to know them, because their music is powerful.”

‘Composer’ should be a fluid, creative idea.

The concert was fantastic. As a cross-listing with the Music Without Borders series which takes place in non-traditional neighborhood venues, the first night found me looking around a boxy, community-style room, half-crammed with the active buzz of a full orchestra. I entertained a fleeting concern about acoustics, but doubt melted quickly as the musicians embarked upon a sonic description of the region with warmth and sincere expression: the colorful ripples of Noah Sorota’s The Bluegrass. The program included works by such established masters as Joan Tower alongside emerging voices like Jessie Montgomery, TJ Cole, and Rachel Orth, and also offered a thoughtful emotional contour–as Abrams described, “both a personal and a national element of what it means to be an American now.”

I was particularly struck by Rachel Grimes’ piece, three orchestrated movements from her solo piano album Book of Leaves. Soft jazz inflections overlaid with an oboe singing plaintively in a high register grabbed my attention immediately. I relished minimalistic pulses blended with soulful, modal melodies which seemed to emerge as if from forest depths. At the end, a woman behind me proclaimed, matter-of-factly, “Oh my god,” and leapt to her feet to applaud. I couldn’t have agreed more.

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The audience itself was equally captivating. The orchestra premiered an arrangement of Julia Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, the Pulitzer-winning composer’s reaction to witnessing the 9/11 attacks in New York. This driving piece fully inhabits each of its titular adjectives, plunging any American back into the fearful confusion of that day. As nauseating uncertainty crystallized into low brass tolls and a wrench of chimes, I surveyed the visually conventional audience for reactions experience has taught me to expect. But they were unflinching. Throughout this work and an entire program of new music, LO listeners leaned straight in, exhibiting a trust and receptiveness I’ve not seen before in my concert-going life.

“There’s this kind of openness to virtually anything…and a lack of preconceptions here,” Abrams said. “People are willing to experience something and let the experience be the determiner of what they feel about it.” That special connection is Louisvillian tradition; the LO boasts a long, storied history of commissioning new music, and Abrams makes a natural partner to continue the legacy. Of Wolfe’s piece, he said, “that’s a piece for human beings alive today. There’s going to be an immediate emotional relationship with that subject matter, and then with the piece itself–and that’s where you start.” Music to my ears.

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Before the second concert, I caught part of a Compassion Jam (in fact the best way to describe it), a culminating event at the Festival of Faiths happening concurrently downtown. Abrams joined Rachel Grimes, the uncategorizable Jecorey “1200” Arthur, a poet, dancers, and others for a feast of improvised experiences, including a film score and audience-participation jam. This intentional celebration of abundance, I thought, is what compassion looks like. So does art at its best.

“People deserve, first and foremost, to hear everything,” Abrams declared. Describing the wealth of cuisines people easily access, he added, “this has got to be considered the great golden age of eating. I’d love it if we could consider it the great golden age of orchestral music, too. There’s a thought!” In Louisville, the vision may be close at hand.