Teddy Abrams: An Ambitious Conductor Tackling Big Questions

Mark MacNamara on August 26, 2015
Conductor Teddy Abrams

Teddy Abrams, the youngest musical director of a major American orchestra, has become a true celebrity in the last year, and one might add, a much needed celebrity in the classical music world. At 28, the Bay Area-bred conductor heads the Britt Classical Music Festival in Oregon and the Louisville Symphony, with its illustrious history of commissioning and recording new work.

It’s an orchestra that’s gone through ups and downs in recent years but to Abrams’ mind, it’s more than ever a synapse point for the local community, and also a model for other orchestras, large and small, across the country

His first year as director is the subject of a new PBS.org web series, Music Makes a City Now, which debuted on August 26, 2015. The 12-part series, each episode five to seven minutes, follows Abrams, as he assumes his role as director. In episode one, he moves into a new house, which is carefully designed as an extension of the music hall. Each room is filled with instruments and sofas. Speakers are set up just outside the house to send music into the street. The vibe is ‘come in and play.’ The style is improv. The ambiance is fearless. The music is eclectic and unexpected.

The message is that the concert hall is not merely a building downtown; it’s wherever you are, wherever musicians and composers sit down and create. It’s finally a state of mind focused on the intention of simply making the world a more communal and inspiring place.

Recently, we talked with Abrams about the PBS series and his first year. We began by asking whether this approach described in the series was intended as a model.

“Absolutely, the whole idea behind the series is that it would suggest a model that other people could replicate. That really represents the entire ethos and aesthetic of the Louisville orchestra right now. I’m hoping that the experiments that are working well are going to be applicable across the entire orchestra landscape.”

Is innovation actually harder at a bigger orchestra?

This whole nonprofit model we work from is predicated on a couple of suppositions and expectations.  The first is that you’re not only going to do things because they bring in some kind of revenue but because you think they’re the right thing to do. The danger, and the real philosophical quandary here — it’s almost a paradox — is that at a certain level, when a certain number of people support what you’re doing and say it’s okay if it doesn’t necessarily make money, the danger is that you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. The irony is that often what happens in those major markets is that the wealth of donated money doesn’t fund the “creative risk” and “creative capital” that leads to the big changes in our culture and the kind of growth that I think we’re all looking for.  ...often what happens in major markets is that the wealth of donated money doesn’t fund the “creative risk” and “creative capital” that leads to the big changes in our culture.

So the real problem for orchestras these day is less graying audiences than an outdated economic model?

Yes. The question we should be confronting is not only what audiences want but also what do they need and what are they going to need? The great thing about the music we play, this huge compendium, this giant history of music, is that it provides something that nothing else fulfills. Only the act of playing great music, and in just about any setting, allows people to come together from all backgrounds, all educations, all interests in music and find common ground. That’s what’s so important and enduring about orchestras; they do genuinely allow people to come together and be of like mind. And they create and strengthen communities and that’s why its so important that they take a leadership place.

You’ve said that perhaps Louisville hasn’t done the best job of selling itself.

So much of what orchestras do is propagating, recreating. That’s honestly not the best story to tell. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that none of the great musicians of the past would recognize our current musical culture. They would be completely confused by it or horrified by it. The key to creating something that people genuinely want is giving them what they don’t have. What they do have are all the great masterpieces of the past. Those have to be played. And, of course, life would be extremely unfortunate without those. But they have to be in the context of a living musical culture, one that represents not only now but the future.

Abrams conducting the Louisville Orchestra. Photo: O'Neil Arnold

So what’s wrong with the way this musical culture is set up?

Think about how we’ve constructed composition right now. There’s no great model for giving composers a reason to compose. When you compensate soloists and conductors on a very high level, where’s the equivalent for composers? Composers need to be given the financial resources and musical resources to do what they do. The fact is we have transitioned away from that.

How would you change the setup?

All major arts organizations should not only have musicians on staff but there should also be a department of composition; people who are composing for the moment. In Bach’s time there was a department of composition in every church and state office; there was a constant need for new music. Just imagine the difference if symphonies provided — with each position for, say, a principal flute or a section second violinist — if there were an equal number of positions for composers. Granted that might be a huge expense. But think of the effect. It would be pretty interesting and you think of people like Mason Bates in Chicago or John Adams when he was with San Francisco. There was this relationship between audience and orchestra and composer that led to really lasting pieces. That’s just a hint of what’s possible.

Where does the money come from to add this dimension?

There are two ways of doing it. One, when you demonstrate that that’s really important, and somebody makes an effort to carve that out, and fundraise at a very intensive level. But also this is the responsibility of the financial stewards of a city. They’re the people who say the ‘$10 million endowment is worthwhile because it makes a difference in the world.’ It’s those people who are also going to recognize the value of creating music for ‘us’, for the people alive right now.

They’re the ones who once gave this city’s orchestra a giant commissioning project that was a joint partnership with the city. It lasted for decades and paid for new music to be composed, played, and recorded. And its great that we have that as part of our history but it’s also tragic that that was lost to us, that we don’t have that anymore.

Of course the question remains, given all the needs of society, how do you justify that expense? For me, essentially, how do I justify what I do? One way is to look at some of the music we did last season, where people were brought together from all backgrounds, where we were playing music ‘of the now’, and people responded in such a visceral and positive way — not just positive for themselves but for their community. ... Every once in a while someone who was powerfully moved will tell us that. Not just that they enjoyed a performance, but how it may have been life changing. At those moments that’s when the the whole mountain of work we’ve done — all the practicing and fundraising and marketing — they all come into focus and they remind you that, yes, this music is extremely important.

How do you blend your own tastes in contemporary music with that of your patrons and audience?

First of all, I believe that the way you present any work of art has a huge influence on the way people perceive it. Not to say that a work of art doesn’t have all of its inherent value and ability to communicate on its own, but clearly people come to a work of art with various prejudices and stereotypes, and things that have nothing to do with the art itself. So all the things that people have heard about how they should react to music, how they should listen, or what the music means — all those questions become the source of trepidation about the orchestra experience as a whole.

Last year we did an experimental program with two first symphonies, the first symphony written by Brahms and the first symphony of Sebastian Chang. He’s a friend of mine from Curtis (Institute of Music in Philadelphia). He’s a great, great talent. So I conducted a little experiment. I invited a group of people who had never been to the symphony before; basically, I gave tickets away to members of the local business association. On top of that we had Sebastian come out before he played his piece to demonstrate how he came up with this work and to explain his inspirations. He sat down at the piano and demonstrated his process of improvising.

Afterward, I asked these people what they thought of the concert and the responses were all over the place. What was interesting was that many people said how much they liked the Brahms and how beautiful it was, but they just loved the Sebastian Chang symphony. Now, nobody said to these people before the concert, you’re ‘supposed’ to like the Brahms symphony more than the Chang symphony. In fact, for most of these people this was probably the first time they’d heard Brahms, particularly at a concert. But they were particularly engaged by this living composer’s first symphony.

When people go to a Taylor Swift concert or a Kanye West concert they’re as attracted to the artist, and whatever charisma they might have, as they are to the music. What I realized is that it’s the presence of the artist that’s so important. “When people go to a Taylor Swift concert or a Kanye West concert they’re as attracted to the artist, and whatever charisma they might have, as they are to the music ... It’s the presence of the artist that’s so important.”

How far can you press the envelope in what you’re doing in Louisville?

I think we can try an enormous range of things. I really believe that if you do it in a loving and creative way, I need to believe that people will follow you there. Of course not every person is gong to love every single thing you do, but that’s not the point. The point is doing something that’s important for society and for creativity, however you define that. And for that you have to have musical conviction and artistic conviction.

How far can we push it? If its done in that loving way and where art is first and foremost, then people will accept it. I keep thinking of what Bernstein once said, how he wished everyone could like him but he just couldn’t know everybody. I think this element of personal connection is something often lost in the world of orchestras.

Aside from your work what are you thinking about these days?

So much of the work that I do boils over into the civic, and social, and even political arenas of society.  It gets me thinking about my role beyond that of a musician and composer. What’s our deeper role as artists in today’s society— and our role as artistic organizations?  And what’s the world we want to live in and how we are all going to contribute in order to make that happen? It may sound naively altruistic but that’s the kind of creative life I want to lead. And maybe it’s just bringing people together at concerts and festivals. So long as we are moving our society in a positive direction. That’s what I fall asleep thinking about.


Postscript: Crater Lake, July 2016

Next summer, in late July, Abrams will direct the Britt Festival Orchestra in an unusual two-day, free concert to celebrate the singular beauty of Oregon’s Crater Lake. The highlight will be a world premiere commission by composer Michael Gordon,with the dramatic panorama of the entire lake as the setting.

Talking about his piece, Gordon noted, “The project at Crater Lake is designed to be an experiential, spatial work. The idea is to draw out the natural sounds in and around Crater Lake and connect the natural sonic environment to the orchestra.”

We asked Abrams how he came to choose Gordon. He replied that he’d received a CD in the mail. “I don’t often put a CD in the player as soon as I receive it, but this time I did. It was this orchestra piece — I don’t even remember the name of it — but there was something very visceral, very earthy about it, and I kept thinking ‘oh my gosh, this is the guy.’ I had wanted to work with [Gordon]  for a while and am a big admirer of his work. We asked him and he seemed fascinated by the proposal. One of the great things about him is that he really thinks through something before he does it. I could tell when we went up to Crater Lake how engaged he was with the park and the whole setting. He’s very thoughtful. I think people are really going to like this.”