Friday, October 16, 2015

Teddy Abrams and the Orchestra gear up for ‘Kaddish to Klezmer’ and the first-ever ‘Louisville Concerto’

“I don’t know if I told you I was performing at Whitney Hall Oct 23rd and 24th with the Louisville Orchestra,” rapper JaLin Roze recently shared with his social media followers.

It’s not a typical gig for Roze, even though he’s considered among the best in his genre across the region. That’s precisely the type of disconnect Louisville Orchestra music director Teddy Abrams was looking to fix when he conceived of the Orchestra’s collaborative “Louisville Concerto,” which premieres at the Kentucky Center for the Arts on Friday, Oct. 23.

Roze is part of a quartet of native Louisville musicians who make up the two-shows-only “Louisville Concerto.” He’s joined by violinist Scott Moore, who has performed with the bluegrass band the 23 String Band and alongside Ben Sollee and Jim James; influential and internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Will Oldham; and percussionist Dani Markham, who has been touring with the Oakland-based experimental rock band Tune-Yards.

“None of them have worked together, which is particularly cool,” notes Abrams of the “group solo piece for four soloists.”

The youthful Abrams, now into his second season, passionately approaches his orchestra as a vital, living creature. Markham says she hadn’t met him before but had “heard great things” as she traveled around the world. Abrams sought out her cell number and texted her to ask if she would be interested in collaborating on the project. The “Concerto” features the Orchestra backing the quartet as they each perform a piece they feel connected to.

“My mind was blown,” says Markham, who had been planning to return to Louisville during October after her tour ended. “I had just been thinking about trying to collaborate with orchestras … It really came at a perfect time.”

Abrams also made a good impression by visiting with Markham’s alma matter, the Louisville Leopard Percussionists youth performance group, where she also teaches whenever possible. Abrams has earned that respect by tirelessly reaching out to community members east and west, in churches and synagogues, and with musicians in many genres.

“I love how it’s been working so far,” the northern California native Abrams says of his Louisville adventure. When he started, he says he knew there was potential for bringing crowds, especially younger and more diverse crowds, back to the Louisville Orchestra that had not been met yet. Now, “people are following it in a way that they would also follow a sports team, or something else they’re passionate about.”

Abrams — who conducts and also plays piano and clarinet — delights in pushing musical boundaries, balancing the popular and the progressive. It’s a tradition that goes back with this orchestra to 1948, when Mayor Charles Farnsley decided that modern composers would receive commissions to create new music to be played first by the Louisville Orchestra.

But Abrams says it’s a work in progress. “You can’t immediately rip open people’s expectations, because that’s when you can alienate people instead of bringing them all together. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”

When we spoke on Wednesday, he was driving to New Albany to talk about this weekend’s neighborhood concerts, including performances Saturday night (at the Ogle Center at IUS) and Sunday afternoon (at The Temple in Louisville’s East End) of “Kaddish to Klezmer.” (A Friday night performance at Central High School has been postponed).

The focus in “Kaddish to Klezmer” is on a variety of Jewish composers, covering ground from show tunes to jazz to folk music written by icons Irving Berlin and George Gershwin as well as lesser-known composers.

“It’s one of those crazy days that’s part of a crazy week, and becoming part of a crazy season, too,” Abrams says. “But it’s good … that means we’re doing something, which is how it should be.”

The Louisville Orchestra is leaving their home and traveling to more neighborhood locations this year than last year, having seen an overwhelmingly positive response to the experiment during Abrams’ introductory season. As audiences have increased, so has financial support, through ticket sales and underwriting, giving them increased viability in an era that has been notoriously difficult for arts groups everywhere.

“We’ll never be 100 percent comfortable. Nonprofits don’t exist like that,” he says. The message he’s trying to spread is that there’s always room for more people to come and enjoy their orchestra.

“You have to remember, our government does not support the arts to the extent I think a) they should, or b) they can,” Abrams says. “But it’s a two-way street. We need to show them why they should support us, and that’s what we’ve been working on — changing that whole image and connection with the public.”

“Kaddish to Klezmer” takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, at the IUS Ogle Center, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 18, at The Temple. “Louisville Concerto” takes place at 11 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 23, and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24, at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, go to

c. 2015 Insider Louisville

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