The Louisville Orchestra is celebrating its 80th anniversary while creating some of our most important history now. When the Teddy Abrams chapters are in the books, I predict they’ll recall how we brandished our repertoire’s vernacular roots rather than being content as a tuxedo-clad reproduction.
It’s in this spirit of authenticity that we welcome Rhiannon Giddens as soloist for the premiere of Teddy’s self-described “90-minute opera/rap/oratorio mash-up”— The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. We’ve consistently set out to make original art for our community and to cultivate unexpected collaborations. Viewed through this lens, premiering an in-house work about Louisville’s most famous son with one of American music’s brightest lights is a high-water mark for us.
Words have a weak grip on music’s objective features; its subjective ones are even more slippery. And describing a vocalist’s art is especially elusive. But on this I can’t be any clearer: Rhiannon’s voice is a revelation. She reveals meaning and nuance in simple tunes and in the next moment can perform a show stopping virtuoso high-wire act.
It’s necessary but incomplete to list her prizes and background. She was awarded a 2017 MacArthur “Genius Grant” for “Reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present.” She studied opera at Oberlin, won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, sang on Broadway, and co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Yes, her resume is impressive on paper but her power in practice is the elision between interpreter and creator. Her interpretations of old music are so fresh as to be something new. Her own music time travels and makes personal narratives from the past astonishingly vivid.
Each Tuesday morning I start the work week at the Louisville Orchestra with thoughtful and excellent musicians. And we regularly accompany the world’s finest soloists. Rhiannon is all of those things, but I believe she’s achieving something even rarer: a progression from professional success to cultural significance.
I’ve travelled across times zones to hear her perform, shared the stage with her, and listened to the records on repeat; I can testify to the magic. The temptation to reissue new versions of the successful formula must be strong. But she’s writing music with a more expansive historical sweep and shedding light on the covered up practices and history of American folk music.
Rhiannon’s quote “The strength of American music is in bringing all these things together—Celtic, gospel, jazz, folk—all these things that make American music great,” could be Teddy’s operating principle. In rehearsal, Teddy described the breadth, contradictions, and arc of Ali’s life as almost being like fiction—it’s hard to believe that that much happened in one man’s life. To express that musically requires being unbound from any single tradition. Describing Rhiannon’s involvement in The Greatest, Teddy said “ No one else can do what she does. She was perfect for this.” I think this applies to the composer too and Saturday night’s collaboration reflects what this institution has worked so hard to become and what we aim to be.