Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra: All In
Decca Gold

All In is apparently the Louisville Orchestra's first album in nearly thirty years, to which the only reasonable question is “Why?” This is an album that veritably bursts with exuberance, the playing so engaged it's as if conductor Teddy Abrams and company were perhaps hoping to make up for lost time by delivering an ultra-enthusiastic performance. The populist spirit of the recording is in keeping with his desire to introduce classical music to new audiences and the advocacy role he's embraced in fostering collaborations with the Louisville Ballet, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and others.

An established pianist, clarinetist, and composer, Abrams has done much to revitalize the orchestra and its fortunes. When he moved from Detroit to Louisville to lead the company in 2014 and become its Music Director at the age of twenty-seven, he inherited an institution that had seen better days: four years before his arrival, this once renowned champion of new composers had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and at a time when it should have been celebrating its seventy-fifth year in 2012, performances had become rare. Saying that the orchestra sounds reborn on this recording isn't therefore far from the truth.

Much of the music is crowd-pleasing, its set-list the kind of thing one could imagine the orchestra presenting at an outdoor site such as New York's Central Park or Chicago's Millennium Park on a warm summer's evening. Which is not to suggest it's music without integrity, because it is; it's also, however, music that one could easily imagine bringing crowds to their collective feet. In essence, the recording splits into three parts: Abrams' four-movement composition Unified Field opens the album on a bold polystylistic note; following that, vocalist Storm Large, a frequent collaborator with the orchestra, imbues songs by Abrams, Cole Porter, and Large herself with a theatrical flair, after which the album concludes with a stirring reading of Aaron Copland's Concerto for Clarinet featuring Abrams himself in the solo chair and Jason Seber conducting.

Seventeen minutes in total, Unified Field ranges widely, its American-infused writing guaranteed to appeal to fans of Gershwin, Bernstein, and Copland. A dramatic, classic orchestral soundtrack-styled tone permeates the opening movement, after which syncopated dance rhythms enliven the rambunctious, jazz-tinged second and hints of Copland's Rodeo (“Hoe-Down,” specifically) surface in the high-spirited fourth.

During the album's middle section, Large and company give Porter's “It's Alright With Me” an uproarious treatment, the orchestra's jazzier side coming to the fore in the electric guitar solo that accompanies the singer's performance. She tones things down smartly for Abrams' moody, noir-flavoured ballad “The Long Goodbye,” the kind of torch song that singlehandedly evokes an entire era of long-past moviedom, and her own “A Woman's Heart,” a blues ballad that benefits from a sparse arrangement that shows just the right amount of circumspection.

Speaking of Copland, he's represented here by the Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra with Harp and Piano, a long-form piece that follows a poignant lyrical opening section with livelier stretches. How interesting it is that on an album filled with extroverted playing, it should be the quietest episode that ultimately makes the deepest impression; there's no denying the beauty of that gentle intro, however, and the sensitivity and dynamic control the musicians demonstrate in their handling of the material speaks powerfully on the orchestra's behalf.

If there's a weak spot in these performances, it's drumming that's a little too stiff; in those moments when the orchestra transforms into a big band, finesse, swing, and a natural jazz feel are needed, which a drummer like Peter Erskine or Bill Stewart would have provided. That caveat aside, the album's merging of popular and classical forms provides ample listening pleasure, and there's no denying the infectiousness of the album's celebratory spirit. Here's hoping another thirty years won't pass before a follow-up appears.

January 2018