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    Robert Simonds has got the beat. And so does the rest of the Louisville Orchestra. Which, believe it or not, isn’t always the case with orchestras. Simonds, a violinist with the LO, says most conductors actually pay little attention to time and tempo, mentioning how the Philadelphia Orchestra is “renowned for playing behind the beat and just milking every ounce of goodness out of the harmony.” But the LO, under the direction of Teddy Abrams, is trying to get in rhythm and stay on the beat. Like John Travolta striding down the sidewalk to “Stayin’ Alive.” “People, I think, experience rhythm on a pretty deep level, even maybe more in a subconscious way,” Simonds says. “If we’re able to play more in keeping with the way people experience music, the audience will be able to take away more from a concert, either consciously or subconsciously — or both.”

    This season will be Simonds’ seventh as principal second violin. Simonds, who began studying violin with his grandmother as a boy in Massachusetts, didn’t come to Louisville expecting to play contemporary music. Abrams had not yet arrived. Originally, he played for director Jorge Mester, who is a Romantic with a capital R. “When I first got to the orchestra, we would play 19th-century music with a lot of swing — and sometimes it wasn’t always the most together,” Simonds says. “It was very emotional, very expressive, very energetic — but not the most precise — sacrificing a bit of the clockwork for expression, which is a good thing in my estimation.

    “But,” Simonds adds, “when we would play contemporary music, the orchestra would get incredibly focused and play with incredible rhythmic precision.”

    Then came Abrams in 2014, with a commitment to return to the orchestra’s yesteryear roots of trying out contemporary music, which it had done when it recorded and commissioned new works in the 1950s and ’60s. The change was right up Simonds’ alley — and embraced by most of his fellow musicians. With, one imagines, a few bad habits to expunge. “Well, bad habits probably isn’t the best word,” Simonds says. “Classical musicians often have a pretty free sense of time that wouldn’t fly in a rock band or a funk band or a jazz combo.”

    A lot of the new music is complicated, including compositions by Abrams himself. Try playing something in 12/7 meter that switches to 5/4 — with 19 flats in the key of Z. With a gong. “Chaos if you’re not onboard,” Simonds says.

    Another change Simonds mentions: The orchestra is playing without much vibrato, which involves a player wiggling or wobbling the finger pressing the string that’s sounding the note, as a way to slightly change the note’s pitch and broaden its sound. “So think of the way a folk singer would sing, without a lot of vibrato — a really pure, lean sound,” Simonds says. “We’re trying to bring that to everything.” Not unlike how music was played in the 1600s during the Baroque period. “Teddy wants us to get rid of vibrato in everything,” Simonds says. “Sometimes we play Tchaikovsky without vibrato, and it creates a much more transparent sound — and is much more, I think, authentic to the modern listener, who’s accustomed to listening to really refined recordings.”

    Is the Louisville Orchestra pioneering something? And, if so, could this orchestra spark an era of composition that is more popular with the public?

    “I think,” Simonds says, “that when we look back — when the Teddy Abrams chapter of the Louisville history is written — we may have somehow, in some way, changed the way this art form is practiced.”

    This originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine on page 91. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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