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Fanfare, folk and fugue

Britt's 2015 Classical Festival will be an epic one, says Britt Orchestra Music Director Terry Abrams.

"We're going to push our limits," he says. "We'll perform some of the most challenging and exciting pieces in the entire orchestral repertoire. These will be towering masterworks of orchestral music. Huge because of the number of people required to play them, huge because of their challenges and complexities, and huge because several pieces have been commissioned specifically for this season."

Seven concerts comprise the two-week festival of diverse programs, and audiences will discover more than a stereotype of what an orchestra can perform, Abrams says. Abrams is music director of the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky the rest of the year. He's also a regular guest conductor with New World Symphony in Miami, San Francisco Symphony and Indianapolis Symphony. This is his second year as music director at Britt.

"An orchestra doesn't represent just one style of music, because composers bring their own styles and characteristics to the pieces they write," he says. "Certainly Mozart and Beethoven have their own sounds, but composers have written orchestras for centuries. They speak from their own experiences and are from different places, eras and worlds. The great thing is that the human story, the emotions this music represents, are the same. That's why it still speaks to us."

Abrams and the folks at Britt have made a big effort to make the opening- and closing-night performances special, putting the orchestra foremost. 

The opening-night concert, set for Friday, July 31, will bring together 130 instrumentalists and a choir made up of members of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, Rogue Valley Chorale and San Francisco Girls Chorus.

The show will start with Abrams' own "Kentucky Royal Fanfare," written for Prince Charles when he visited Louisville. 

"What better way to start a season than with a fanfare for brass and percussion," Abrams says. "Then we'll move to a rare gem, 'Poem of Ecstasy,' by Alexander Scriabin," he says. "It's almost never played because it requires such a large orchestra. This is where we utilize all of the musicians that will be around the first week."

The highlight of opening night, Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," will showcase the choirs, along with soloists Hugh Russell (baritone), Celena Shafer (soprano) and Javier Abreu (tenor).

"It's one of the most famous pieces in the entire orchestral repertoire," Abrams says. "And for a reason. It's super dramatic. Orff conceived it as a big dance work with a light show, full chorus and orchestra. But the music itself is so dramatic and fun that it can stand alone."

It starts with the well known "O Fortuna," a choral narrative written from a medieval collection of poems by German monks, Abrams says. The piece centers around such worldly themes as the nature of fate, love, eating and drinking. Britt's production of this scenic cantata showcases the sound of more than 100 people singing. 

"I wasn't planning on something that big on opening night," Abrams says. The festival brought in around 120 instrumentalists to perform Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" on Saturday, Aug. 1. "With tons of musicians around, I thought we might as well give them more to do."

The Aug. 1 show also will host composer John Adams, who will attend to hear the orchestra perform his "Absolute Jest." His son, Samuel Adams, also will attend to hear his "Radial Play" open the show. 

The Saturday, Aug. 15 closing-night concert will showcase Guillaume Connesson's "Cosmic Trilogy: Part 1," Claude Debussy's "Jeux," Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and Maurice Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2."

"These are pieces by composers from France, but from different eras," Abrams says. "French composers are known to create beautiful, creative colors in the orchestra, using instruments in ways that are innovative and thoughtful. The palette is as bright as a Monet painting. It's another program that showcases the range and virtuosity of the orchestra."

Sandwiched in between the opening and closing concerts, Britt will premiere the new Folk Song Cycle, co-written by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan, fiddler Jeremy Kittel and Abrams, Friday, Aug. 7. O'Donovan chose poems by Oregon's Poet Laureate Peter Sears for the lyrics, Kittel wrote the string parts and Abrams created the orchestration that is both Americana and classical. Abrams also wrote one of the songs, "Questions." The concert also features works by Charles Ives, George Antheil and Copland.

Abrams' group Sixth Floor Trio will play a set Saturday, Aug. 8, between Samuel Barber's "Second Essay for Orchestra" and Hector Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique."

"It's an unusual trio," Abrams says. "There are four people in it. We all attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Back then, we found it liberating to play different styles of music. With our classical training, we knew the techniques to try new things. It's one of the great gifts of learning an instrument and playing traditional repertoire. It allows one to pick up bluegrass or rock, and we had such love for breaking down the barriers."

Look for a night of music by Leonard Bernstein when Broadway vocalist Morgan James, the full orchestra and a jazz combo perform Sunday, Aug. 9.

Violinist James Ehnes performs the solo in Barber's Violin Concerto Friday, Aug. 14. Composer Mason Bates will join the Britt Orchestra to perform as "DJ" on his piece "Mothership," for orchestra and electronica.

"Bates will set up a laptop with a system of electronic sounds to play along with the orchestra," Abrams says. "He 'spins the records,' so to speak. It's a very cool collaboration." 

Personalities from Jefferson Public Radio will host pre-concert talks at 7 p.m. each night of the concerts.

All concerts start at 8 p.m. in the Britt Pavilion, 350 First St., Jacksonville, except Symphony Pops Sunday, Aug. 9, which starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets to all concerts cost $45 for reserved seats. $32 for lawn, and $10 for students and children. Tickets to the Symphony Pops cost $15 for reserved seats, $5 for lawn. A Classical Lawn Pass is available for $69, and an Orchestra Lover's Special is $270.

Visit the box office, 216 W. Main St., Medford, the website at www.brittfest.org or call 800-882-7488 for tickets and information.

Teddy Abrams celebrates his second year as music director at the 2015 Britt Classical Festival, opening Friday, July 31. Photo courtesy of O'Neil Arnold