Music Director Teddy Abrams leads the Louisville Orchestra in a premiere of composer Rachel Grimes’ folk opera and film “The Way Forth” in a concert Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. A movie made by Grimes and filmmaker Catharine Axley accompanies the performance, projected on a screen above the orchestra.
Also on the program, the symphony collaborates with the Louisville Ballet in a newly commissioned choreography of the American ballet “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland.
The two works comprise the first half of the Louisville Orchestra’s fourth annual “Festival of American Music.” The second part, March 8-9, is devoted to jazz, that most-American musical form.
Grimes, a Louisville-based composer and pianist, first conceived “The Way Forth” as songs with a chamber-sized ensemble, with a theme of finding the voices of those who have not often been heard — especially frontier women and succeeding generations in Kentucky. A time when history seemed to belong almost strictly to men.
“That’s kind of a main theme for me, that pioneer women were not published,” says Grimes. “They didn’t have a lot of diaries. They weren’t written about. But there were as many women of that time as there were men.”
Grimes sought those stories and imagined how their people would tell them.
Joyous, sad and maybe resolute
Teddy Abrams was impressed when he played a piano arrangement of “The Way Forth” and urged Grimes to orchestrate the work for a full orchestra. The “American Festival of Music” is a Teddy Abrams big idea, something he sees as a major initiative for his orchestra in presenting new music and American themes.
And Rachel Grimes fits all that perfectly.
“It’s hard to categorize Rachel Grimes’ music because she’s definitely classically based in that she’s writing all this stuff down in a score,” says Abrams. “A lot of artists with her background (as a performer and songwriter) don’t have that ability to write such a complex, fully orchestrated score. Her music also draws on folk influences, and it draws on contemporary idioms and bits of indie styles.”
The idea for “The Way Forth” began with Grimes and her late brother Edward sifting through family history, especially thinking back through the lives of their grandmothers. Grimes expanded to a broader look at the historical settlement of Kentucky. But the songs that flow forth from her pen aren’t so much a story of exploration and the feats of Daniel Boone.
Those stories are already known, told by voices we have already heard. The composer, instead, reaches into the past for voices that have been missed by the chroniclers of history. “The Way Forth” is full of songs that might have been penned — poignant, joyous, sad and maybe resolute.
A big bouncy song called “Got Ahold of Me” gets “The Way Forth” rolling. Another is based on her grandmother’s teaching life in the one-room “Red House School.” There’s a medley of minstrel songs from steamboat days based on songs composed by Henry Hart, a descendent of an African-American slave called Dolly who came into Kentucky with the Boone party to Boonesborough in 1775.
For the movie, Grimes and Axley journey through Kentucky countrysides and along river ways to cinematically illustrate “The Way Forth.” Axley and Grimes poke around abandoned country stores and find one old house that almost … any day now … will collapse onto itself.
On another day, they glide along the Dix River, finding stories in the current.
Another Grimes composition, “Book of Leaves,” was previously presented in the “Festival of American Music.”
“I love Rachel’s work, and I love her as a person,” says Abrams. “She’s an incredibly thoughtful and empathetic person, and that comes through in her music. I think it’s a really interesting case of how her sensitivity to the environment and the people around her speaks beautifully in her music. I picked up on it the first time I met her.”
An ‘Appalachian Spring’ for ballet and orchestra
Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is most often heard as an instrumental suite, but it was commissioned by choreographer Martha Graham as a ballet that premiered in 1944, with Graham dancing. Later the Louisville Orchestra commissioned Graham and composer William Schuman for a ballet called “Judith,” which the orchestra took to Carnegie Hall in 1950.
For “Appalachian Spring,” the Louisville Ballet sought and received approval from the Copland Foundation to create a new choreography — the first since Graham’s. The Louisville company’s choreographer-in-residence Andrea Schermoly created the new dance.
For the performance, rising front stages of Whitney Hall will be used to showcase the dancers — and the orchestra.
“One of the nice things about Whitney is that it is quite flexible being a theatrical stage — not just an orchestra-only stage,” says Abrams.
The conductor notes that ballets are generally performed with the orchestra tucked into a pit in front of the stage, but this one also has a full-orchestra version composed by Copland. “We really wanted this to be something that can be performed with the orchestra there, without us felling like we’re in the background.”
Abrams adds that this is his third collaboration with the ballet and its director Robert Curran. And Copland makes it special.
“I thought, in the spirit of doing this, there’s nothing that speaks to a great American artist’s legacy like creating a new work in their honor,” he says.
The Louisville Orchestra’s “Festival of American Music I: Kentucky Spring” takes place Saturday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m. in Whitney Hall at the Kentucky Center. Tickets start at $27. The “Festival of American Music II: The Jazz Influence” runs March 8-9 at the Kentucky Center as well.