Teddy Abrams & Yo-Yo Ma Go Underground with the Louisville Orchestra
Yo-Yo Ma Goes Underground with the Louisville Orchestra
Teddy Abrams, the ensemble’s music director, has created a work about Mammoth Cave—and staged the piece inside its reverberating walls.
By Alex Ross
Abrams’s gifts as a conductor were evident at a gala concert in Louisville last month, at the Kentucky Center. He leads with a clear, fluid beat, somewhat in the Tilson Thomas manner. Aspects of the orchestra’s Whitney-era sound remain—a straightforward, pungent, propulsive approach—but Abrams has fostered greater precision and vibrancy. Rhythmic zest lit up the final movement of Henk Badings’s Seventh Symphony, a spiky Louisville commission from 1954. Ma took the stage for Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, summoning its frenzied and desolate moods with equal conviction. The orchestra provided unfailingly alert accompaniment, resulting in an interpretation of real heft. Whenever I visit so-called regional orchestras, the story is the same: an influx of skilled younger players has raised technical standards to a startling degree.
The venture into Mammoth Cave, which took place two days after the gala, is Abrams’s most ambitious undertaking to date. Mammoth, the longest cave system ever discovered, is about seventy-five miles south of Louisville and is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Abrams’s idea of staging a work at and about Mammoth intersected neatly with Ma’s current interests. In the past couple of years, the cellist has been participating in informal concerts and community events across the national-park system, under the banner of a project called Our Common Nature. Abrams won approval from park administrators and set about composing a ninety-minute oratorio that includes a series of instrumental soliloquies for Ma.
“Mammoth,” as Abrams’s piece is called, attempts to sum up the entire five-thousand-year history of human exploration of the cave: Native questers, enslaved Black miners, rival cave exploiters, and latter-day park rangers. The libretto includes poetic meditations from three writers associated with Kentucky—Robert Penn Warren, Wendell Berry, and Ada Limón. Abrams incorporates into his score preëxisting hymns, Appalachian folk songs, fiddle-band music, bugle calls, and a ballad in honor of the spelunker Floyd Collins, whose death at Mammoth, in 1925, caused a national-news sensation. Playing the part of Celebrant—essentially, a narrator with a singing role attached—was the nobly urgent bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who grew up on the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains, in Virginia. Tines’s longtime collaborator Zack Winokur directed the show, overcoming the logistical challenges of organizing a quasi-operatic event in an exceedingly unconventional space that allowed for only a few days of on-site rehearsal.
The beginning was intensely dramatic. Audience members, numbering five hundred, walked down the sixty-eight steps of the cave’s Historic Entrance. Inside, voices floated out of the murk: members of the Louisville Chamber Choir and of the orchestra were singing a wordless, rising-and-falling chant that started out as a unison and then grew in polyphonic complexity. After walking a quarter mile or so, spectators took up positions on the sides of Rafinesque Hall, one of Mammoth’s largest internal chambers. The orchestra was to one side; Tines and the choristers paced about; Ma sat at the center. The acoustics were, needless to say, reverberant, yet individual lines remained distinct. Despite the damp, cool surroundings, the sound had an unexpected warmth.