It’s nothing new for orchestras or their conductors to engage in some level of community outreach beyond the classical nature of their performance repertoire. Pops concerts, school presentations and holiday-themed shows are just a few examples.
Teddy Abrams, though, has placed that working philosophy in a level of motion that doesn’t simply extend the conventional artistic visibility of a maestro. The conductor and music director for the Louisville Orchestra has redefined the job description altogether.
After several years of special performance projects designed for the decidedly non- classical Forecastle Festival, Abrams has been invited to curate all the music for one the event’s five concert stages (the Port Stage) with a roster devoted exclusively to Kentucky-area artists.
“One of the things we’ve done at the Louisville Orchestra is to emphasize how music is about much more than just a concert,” Abrams said. “Music is a way to strengthen society and bring folks together. What that led up to was the ability to start working with musicians from all backgrounds. The Louisville Orchestra is known for genre bending and breaking and working with people you would not expect to be at any kind of orchestra concert. I think that’s why this relationship has really taken off with Forecastle.
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“It is actually a lot of work, where I take on as much of an administrative role as a musical one. Because I’m not a touring act, everything I put together is just for that day. But, again, that plays into this whole idea of community. Coachella, Governor’s Ball and Bonnaroo … they’re all great festivals and have really excellent lineups. But Forecastle distinguishes itself because you’re only going to see the kind of music we’re presenting for the Port Stage on the Port Stage. People are never going to see these sets from this stage replicated.”
What that translates into are three days of multi-genre programs with headline acts that feature Abrams in an array of performance situations.
On Friday, Abrams brings back The Thrills — a group that allows players to showcase, and then blend, elements of jazz, folk and more.
On Sunday, Abrams will oversee a live session of cover tunes utilizing noted regional players from outside the classical spectrum that include Lexington cellist Ben Sollee and Houndmouth chieftain Matt Myers. The latter will go so far as to include non- musicians, most notably Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, who will recite sections, over music, of political speeches that have inspired him throughout his career.
“I thought if this was the ultimate local showcase,” Abrams said, “then we need the mayor. It’s already pretty amazing that this rock/pop/folk festival would have the conductor of the Louisville Orchestra involved in any way. That’s already really shocking for a major festival. But to curate a whole stage that would be devoted to our music scene here is incredible.
“There is this understanding that Kentucky — and Louisville, specifically, but certainly beyond — has a very special musical history within the American music spectrum. Kentucky’s profile is distinct. But we also like to keep things a bit of a secret. The whole idea here is to remove the curtain and give our artists — whether they work in the classical vein or rock or folk or hip hop or any of those genres which we all do very well here — access to audiences that are coming from all over the place to see the festival.”
But it’s what Abrams has cooked up for Saturday that may the most daring part of his programming.
On Friday and Sunday, he will make the effort to reach out to Forecastle’s non-classical audience. On Saturday, though, he will invite that audience into his world. He will reassemble a collective known at the Forecastle Symphony to perform vanguard minimalist composer Terry Riley’s 1964 work “In C.” A piece of no defined length designed for an equally unspecified number of musicians featuring multiple themes played in varying intervals, often with a variety of start and stop times, “In C” has challenged expectations of classical audiences for decades. And that makes it pretty much perfect for Forecastle.
“It’s still a big experiment,” Abrams said. “It’s not one little movement. It’s a long piece. I half-jokingly call it Terry Riley’s Music for Cosmic Unity. You have to spend some time with the piece. You need to sink into it. You need to invest in it because for the first couple of minutes, you’re thinking, ‘This is unusual.’ But my whole thing is, music festivals are very high paced, high energy experiences. So I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to have one hour where there’s this big vista of music that’s drawn from beginning to end.’ It’s just one expanding landscape where you can sit back and go deeply into the music itself.
“We don’t have enough of those experiences these days. Life and then, consequentially, performances, have become very fast paced. But this is not about that. This is about spending time with a great piece of music.”
IF YOU GO
When: Gates open 2 p.m. July 13, 1:30 p.m. July 14, 1 p.m. July 15
Where: Waterfront Park, 401 River Road, Louisville