An Orchestra Rises in Louisville

Teddy Abrams
The Wall Street Journal

In the mid-20th century, the Louisville Orchestra occupied a unique place in American culture. Though a provincial ensemble in many ways, it led the field in one: No other orchestra could match its commitment to commissioning and performing new music. In time, hundreds of premieres were recorded by the orchestra. Many people were responsible for this course—funded in large part by the Rockefeller Foundation—but none more than Robert Whitney, the orchestra’s music director from 1937 to 1967, and Charles Farnsley, this city’s mayor from 1948 to 1953. Together, they gave the orchestra an identity it retains even today. But maintaining that reputation has posed stark challenges over time, especially in the present century.

Last season, the orchestra welcomed a new music director, Teddy Abrams, who was just 26 years old when he signed a three-season contract in 2013. (Talks have begun on an extension.) His hiring, like Mr. Mester’s reappointment, suggests a Hail Mary pass, but comments from members of the orchestra and random concertgoers this season and last hint that a true revival is under way.

Optimism colors most discussions regarding the orchestra these days, and its primary source is the now 28-year-old Mr. Abrams, a native of Oakland, Calif., and a protégé of Michael Tilson Thomas,the San Francisco Symphony’s longtime music director. In addition to his talents as a conductor, Mr. Abrams is also an accomplished clarinetist and pianist. Last season, at concerts featuring Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” he compensated for the reduced program (a blizzard scuttled a rehearsal) by improvising on the harpsichord. And later this season, in March, he’ll serve as soloist while conducting Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, a work composed for Benny Goodman.

If there is overreach, it comes from his work as a composer and arranger of easily digestible, nominally “classical” music. On Friday and Saturday, for example, he leads the premiere of something called “Louisville Concerto,” a collaboration among the conductor and four nonclassical musicians with strong ties to this city. His greatest gift may be his beguiling persona, equal parts civic cheerleader, modest self-promoter and earnest, if affable, pedagogue. With his fashionably tousled hair, small frame and slight lisp, Mr. Abrams has the rare gift of being able to connect in a meaningful way with just about anyone he meets, even as he speaks to peers, patrons and mentors with penetrating intelligence.

Mr. Abrams’s energy is prodigious, almost intimidating. Last month, he accomplished an astonishing feat, marshaling some 240 performers—orchestra members, amateur choristers, vocal soloists, blues and jazz bands and even a uniformed high-school marching band—in a gripping new staging of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” a bloated work that too frequently falls short of its lofty goals. Yet here, in performances on Sept. 26 and 27, Mr. Abrams endowed the piece with coherence, humanity and winning theatricality, wowing the large crowds at Whitney Hall, the orchestra’s nearly 2,400-seat home.

Ironically, Louisville faces a conundrum regardless of how Mr. Abrams fares. If he fails in the long run to broaden the orchestra’s appeal and expand its audiences, this respected but bruised ensemble may once again be fighting for its continued existence. Yet if he succeeds too well, more prominent and well-heeled orchestras will try to tempt him from his new home. Mr. Abrams goes to lengths to assert his loyalty to the Bluegrass State. For its sake, and particularly Louisville’s, let’s hope he means it. 

Read the rest of the review here