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Britt Orchestra's dynamic world of music

Britt Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams anticipates a classical festival not only adventurous and exhilarating but filled with music that many audiences have not heard before.

"I try to make each year add up to a dynamic world of music," he says, "so audiences experience something from every part of orchestral history, and so they experience the breadth of music an orchestra can play. An orchestra is a dynamic institution, and it plays all kinds of music. It's always about sharing the world of music that it lives in."

Seven themed concerts will be presented at the Britt Pavilion, 350 First St., Jacksonville. All shows start at 8 p.m., except Magic of the Movies on Aug. 6 which starts at 7:30 p.m. New this year, all lawn tickets are just $25, except Magic of the Movies, with tickets at $15, $5 for age 12 and younger. Reserved seating is $49 for all other shows, kids get in for $10. Free pre-concert talks will be presented by orchestra members or featured soloists at 7 p.m. in the Performance Garden.

A celebration of music by West Coast composers will kick off the two-week fest on Friday, July 28. Look for music by John Adams, Mason Bates, John Williams and others, including a premiere performance of a newly commissioned piece, "The Song of the Sasquatch," by Kenji Bunch. Guest artist and cellist Joshua Roman will solo in the performance of Bates' Cello Concerto.

Abrams — who was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and studied piano at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music — feels a strong connection to the West Coast aesthetic and the composers who've come from the region over the past 50 years.

"It really started when European composers immigrated to America," he says. "Stravinsky, Schoenberg and many great film composers relocated to L.A., and then composers with minimalist ideas followed. That brought post-minimalist composers such as John Adams, and contemporary classical composers such as Mason Bates.

"They're all people we've seen perform at Britt," Abrams says. "I wouldn't call West Coast composers a movement, but there definitely are shared elements in their music. They are each distinct, but you'll hear some common threads in their compositions."

These composers integrate electronic or popular music sounds into their music, he says. Adams writes music that is influenced by electronic music from the '60s and '70s, and he uses percussion reminiscent of rock styles.

"Kenji Bunch is another who loves popular music integration," Abrams says. "'The Song of Sasquatch' looks like it has some humorous components, but is also serious piece. I really have no reference as no one has brought it to life yet."

The second concert, Voyage of Discovery, is set for Saturday, July 29. Guest artist and violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley will be featured for Johannes Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major. Also look for Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in Eb major.

On Aug. 4, pianist Jeffrey Kahane joins the orchestra for Expeditions of Reflection. Look for music by Schubert, Beethoven, Monteverdi, Bach and Mozart, along with orchestral arrangements by Britt's director of artistic operations, Mark Knippel.

Mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford and tenor Richard Cox join the orchestra for Eastern Inspiration on Aug. 5. Look for Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng's "Shanghai Overture," Stravinsky's "The Song of the Nightingale" and Gustav Mahler's "The Song of the Earth."

"Sheng's new piece premiered last year," Abrams says. "I met him when he was with the Detroit Symphony. He was one of Leonard Bernstein's closest assistants, and he's got amazing stories. He's now a professor of Leonard Bernstein composition at the University of Michigan.

"The Mahler piece is always exciting," Abrams says. "Based on Eastern philosophy, it's powerful, philosophical music integrated with text, and the alto and tenor arias alternate. It's hard to describe how Mahler works. He is the only one who could write engaging pieces on such a scale."

This year's pop show on Aug. 6, "Magic of the Movies," will feature film scores by John Williams. Look for famous parts from "Star Wars," "E.T.," "Indiana Jones," "Harry Potter," "Jaws" and more.

Expeditions of Reflection on Aug. 12 will feature soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who will be the soloist for Michael Tilson Thomas' "Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind."

"Of all the pieces this season, Thomas' may be the one I'm sitting on the edge of my seat to do" Abrams says. "This is just the third performance of this piece, and the first time that anyone other that Thomas has conducted it. He only wrote it last year, and the New World Symphony in Miami premiered it. Its second performance was just a couple of weeks ago with the San Francisco Symphony.

"'Preludes' call for a full orchestra and a bar band, so there's this jazz band inside the orchestra. The music alternates between atmospheric and earthy. It's a memory of a former civilization that was once great, and the only things that remember it are the rats and lizards. The music goes back and forth between big and jazzy to an atmosphere of a forgotten ruin."

Abrams notes there's an additional element of pressure as Thomas is director of the San Francisco Symphony and was one Abrams' teachers.

Britt's classical season concludes Aug. 13 with a Britt Orchestra Spectacular. Look for George Gershwin's "An American in Paris," Abrams' "Unified Field" and Prokofiev's Symphony in No. 5 in Bb major.

Free BrittKids Koncerts are back again this year, facilitated by Gabriel Globus-Hoenich in the Performance Garden, with shows at 10 a.m. Sunday and Monday, July 30-31, Wednesday, Aug. 2, and Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 7-8.

This interactive series introduces kids of all ages to orchestral instruments, symphonic music and styles of music from around the world. Kids can meet musicians and learn simple rhythms and melodies.

Teddy Abrams makse every concert a special event during Britt's classical season. [Photo by O'Neil Arnold]