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    You are in the sky and exploding or breaking apart — brilliant, bright, blooming. Like a million stars racing to the Ohio River, a million and more eyes (from East End to South End to every end of town) on you at Waterfront Park. You are in Thunder Over Louisville, the biggest fireworks show in the nation (this year on April 23). They call you “chrysanthemum” and you flitter-glitter. They call you “pistol” and you ignite, red or green or blue. Katy Perry knows and goes: Baby, you’re a firework. Come on let your colors burst. You are bursting off barges and the Second Street Bridge. And this year — with the Louisville Orchestra playing as your soundtrack — you’re ever new, surprising. 

    This is what will move you, what you’ll light to: the orchestra’s recording of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” Tchaikovsky, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. And then: the E.T. theme song, Metallica, Michael Jackson, My Morning Jacket. And, yes, Katy Perry. More than 40 clips of music for you to rocket to. “I included a giant spread to showcase on Thunder so people can see the versatility of their orchestra,” says Teddy Abrams, 28, music director and conductor of the L.O. Abrams first saw Thunder when he moved to town two years ago and immediately felt it was his opportunity to bring the L.O.’s music to all of Louisville, which he considers a responsibility. 

    Most orchestral pieces have scores already written, already deconstructed, like Gustav Holst’s mystical “The Planets” from 1918, which Abrams pulled from for the Thunder mix. Contemporary pop is scoreless, usually only melody and chorus. Abrams arranged those songs, listening carefully to each track through his earbuds — “Very utilitarian-ly.” He says: “You listen for each layer and dissect. The layers are very textured — drums, high-pitched violin sounds, rhythm guitar.” He’s quick, has much practice writing compositions. Vocals replaced — no singer, no words — and transcribed for flute or cello or maybe even tuba. “I arranged the songs to sound authentic,” he says. “An orchestra is not the expected instrument, but you can get it to sound like anything.”

    Anything, everything, rock ’n’ roll to R&B. “At the beginning of Katy Perry’s ‘Firework,’ I decided to use all these woodwind instruments. Low winds. Bassoons. Contra bassoons,” he says. “They actually sound exactly like the kind of electronic sounds in the beginning of the song.” For My Morning Jacket’s “One Big Holiday,” you’ll soar, firework, to the interpretation of Jim James’ voice — brassy, to give a sense of the rock vocal, then a swell of strings for deeper growls. You’ll groove to “Smooth Criminal,” which was tough for Abrams, like transcribing rap because of how many words hang on one note. 

    Firework: You’ll dance like never before.

    At the October 2015 recording sessions, Abrams and 97 orchestra musicians rocked black Thunder tees and rolled through two-minute selections onstage at the Brown Theatre. (The editing process shaved these recordings down to less than 30 seconds each.) Thunder creator and producer Wayne Hettinger sat in the mostly empty audience, could clearly see you, firework. Like the Mickey Mouse mop scene in Fantasia. He saw you filling and floating in the sky. Big, dripping, dribbling, sparkling. 

    The 70-year-old has seen Thunder through its first show 27 years ago at Cardinal Stadium, its move to the river, its Broadway themes, its masterpieces – like when you, firework, pour like a waterfall from the bridge. “With this classical soundtrack, I approached it completely different,” Hettinger said. “It’s like painting the sky, if you will.” When Hettinger heard the orchestra’s rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” — the only song that’s been in every Thunder, first chosen for his then-college-aged daughter as an “anything is possible” message, the sentiment diffusing — he saw pixie dust falling to the water. 

    Mike Berry, president and CEO of the Kentucky Derby Festival, was in the audience, too, thinking: ‘I can’t believe we’re finally pulling this off.’ The music suddenly roared into Star Wars and Berry really felt like he was in a galaxy far, far away. 

    How to make you dance for Thunder, firework? How to coordinate the pirouettes? Match the cue to fuse to spark to awe and wonder? The answer is Michael Richards, the vice president of Pennsylvania-based Zambelli Fireworks and Thunder’s fireworks producer. Richards choreographs the duet between you, firework, and the music, focusing on intensity, number of shells fired. The more the better. 

    The 59-year-old was up at 5 a.m. in the first days of March, listening to the final soundtrack KDF sent him. He listened beginning to end and in parts and pieces hundreds of times, notes on scrap paper, starting an outline for what will go into the editing software, where Richards will meld you, firework, to sound — down to the tenth of a second. “I work from the most memorable parts of the show first,” Richards says. “Start with the ending, the production and design of the finale. Then the second finale after that. Then I’ll work on the opening.” 

    This year, you are more like a suspended flower, firework. You scintillate gold, silver. You are multicolored combinations of shells. You are the crown chrysanthemum, covering the whole sky, raining down in glitz and glitter, lingering to the barges. (As the chrysanthemum, you start out the size of a basketball, weigh 20 pounds, are set up by one of the 20 crew members the Friday before Thunder, then shot out of a five-foot-tall pipe and up 1,000 feet.) You are the “rainbow effect,” shooting colors from the bridge on a song that sounds nice and mellow or majestic and big, like “What a Wonderful World.”

    During the grand finale, you can be felt. “I love the ‘titanium salutes’ — loud noise for the end of the show, like a cannon,” Richards says. Sky-high, you can see everything. The light you shine on all those fascinated faces. The spectacular you etch into families, lovers, friends. For this night, you, firework, are heart’s boom, boom, boom.

    This article originally appeared in the April issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

    Cover Image: Frankie Steel/courtesy of Louisville Orchestra  


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