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'Louisville Concerto' Unites City's Orchestra and Contemporary Musicians

J. Tyler Franklin

It's not often that you hear an orchestra conductor counting off the beat before the drums start. But that's how a recent rehearsal Tuesday for the "Louisville Concerto" began.

Teddy Abrams, music director of the Louisville Orchestra, stood on his podium wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a leather hoodie, with percussionist Dani Markham seated behind a drum kit to his left. He counted, "1...2...3...4!" and Markham launched into a blistering beat, the opening to Frank Zappa's "Peaches in Regalia."

Markham is one of the four soloists who co-created and performs the "Louisville Concerto." The Louisville Orchestra was once known nationwide for being a force in contemporary music, commissioning composers and recording new work, and Abrams wants to reinvigorate that part of the orchestra's work.

A concerto is typically a piece that features a soloist accompanied by an orchestra, and in the classical tradition, sometimes the soloist is also the composer. The "Louisville Concerto" brings together Markham, violinist Scott Moore, singer-songwriter Will Oldham (also known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy), and hip-hop artist JaLin Roze, all recruited by Abrams for this project.

They’re all connected to Louisville in some way — this is their hometown, or where they live now — and they’re each showcased in one section of the piece, with a lot of cross-pollination, too.

“We’ve got four soloists, but we’re taking the approach of it being a collaborative effort, so we’re all playing on each other’s sections of the overall piece," Moore said. "I’m singing some backup on JaLin’s song and Will is, and I’m singing a little backup on Will’s song, and Dani’s playing drums on my song, and all the pieces are coming together really nicely.”

Markham, who started performing as a child with the Louisville Leopard Percussionists and now plays with the experimental music project Tune-Yards, feels at home with the orchestra.

“I love being around orchestras. I used to play in orchestras through high school and college, so it’s always an inspiring place, just to see so many musicians coming together and creating one piece is incredible,” said Markham.

This is Roze’s first time performing with an orchestra, and he said just being around all the different sounds has made him think about possibilities for future arrangements of his own songs.

"Just walking through the hallway, there’s a lady playing the harp, and I was like, oh man, harp would sound amazing on this song one day," Roze said. "It definitely does spark our creative interests and our collaborative interests, for sure."

Abrams said one of the challenges has been to find ways for everybody to work together when they come from different musical backgrounds. Some of the soloists read music, others don’t. And the sheer amount of organization it takes to rehearse and prepare with the orchestra is different from just playing music with a few friends.

“There’s not a lot of time to just sit back and talk about how things went," Abrams said. "The actual environment is really rigorous and structured. And so, I’m encouraging everybody to bring all their talents to the table and contribute whenever they feel like their voice or their instrument could build the piece."

Scott Moore, who has played with the 23 String Band and is now leading his own band, Niles Foley, also has a background in classical music. He said this project is all due to Abrams’ influence and calls back to the orchestra's history with new music.

“Having a young visionary conductor in this town has been a real gift, and we’re lucky to have Teddy and a great orchestra," Moore said. "And it’s cool to see them getting back to contemporary music and what does that mean today, as opposed to 50 years ago, what was contemporary music. The scene is completely different now."

Abrams hopes this is the first of many such projects.

“I could see this becoming an annual event where we put together a different group of four Louisville musicians each year, and we build a piece that’s just our own, that really belongs to us,” Abrams said.

The "Louisville Concerto" will be performed alongside Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, considered a groundbreaking work when it was composed in the early 19th century. The program will be held twice at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts: at 11 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.