Teddy Abrams Extends His Roots and Branches

Jeff Kaliss on October 26, 2020
Teddy Abrams conducting the Louisville Orchestra | Credit: O’Neil Arnold

At 33, Berkeley-born Edward Paul Maxwell Abrams has outgrown neither his nickname of “Teddy” nor the ingenuous dynamism which powered him to a bachelor of music degree from the San Francisco Conservatory at age 18 and acceptance as the youngest-ever conducting student at both the Curtis Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School. He’s engagingly athletic on the podium, and Abrams’s prodigious career has included being placed as a conducting fellow with the New World Symphony at 21, resident conductor of the MÁV Symphony in Budapest at 24, assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony at 25, and conductor and music director of the Louisville Orchestra at 27, possibly the youngest person ever attaining that position with a major American metropolitan symphonic ensemble.

PBS profiled his first two seasons in Louisville in the web series, Music Makes a City Now. Abrams has performed on piano or clarinet as soloist and as an ensemble member, and he continues to compose for various sized ensembles, including orchestra. His works include what he has described as “an opera-rap-oratorio mashup” about boxer and Louisville native Muhammad Ali, and, last month, You Can’t Stop the Revolution, an orchestral collaboration channeling the sounds of protests over the killing by Louisville police of Breonna Taylor. SFCV conducted an extensive interview with Abrams from his home in the NuLu neighborhood of Louisville, for which he’s adopted the pronunciation of some of the locals: “Lew-a-vull,” with the middle syllable almost absent.

Have you had to do music from home during the pandemic?

Teddy Abrams | Credit: Chris Witzke

I’m not so interested in doing the full-fledged at-home recitals that a lot of people have been putting out. I’m really interested in what can I do to make statements about what I think are bigger pictures, in music ... called Comfort Concerts. They started several weeks ago, when we were all waiting to find out what would happen with the Breonna Taylor case, watching the tensions grow, and the gloom and frightened quality to the city, which I’d never seen before. I came up with this idea ... individual Zoom concerts that people could sign up to watch for free. I did 50-something of them in the space of a couple of weeks. I used the Facebook Appointment system, first-come first-served. I talked with people and asked them the loaded question about how they’re holding up, and I’d judge what I thought the best music would be. I had pieces that ranged from Bach to some of my own music, Copland, Chopin waltzes, spirituals.

All you on the piano?

Just the piano. And there was a wide range of what I’d see on the other “side.” Sometimes a whole family crammed onto a couch or bed. Mostly from Louisville, or Louisvillians who’ve moved elsewhere. A whole bunch of younger folk calling from Golden Gate Park, where they were sitting in a circle with a phone in the middle. I was totally overwhelmed by the humanity of it. It’s almost like my democratic duty to do something to make a difference.

I watched YouTube videos of you over lunch, and it seemed getting out into the community is your mode.

It really is, just because I believe our institutions are inextricably linked to the places and the people that we serve.

Is Louisville a particularly good place to be putting public service into practice?

It really is. Like most San Franciscans, I grew up with no idea of what Kentucky is like, because it’s not talked about. I was blown away! One of the things I like about Louisville is that it has this weird, good, inferiority complex. People are really proud of their city, but they feel constantly like nobody else gets it. In larger cities that are very confident of their status, they like to keep their status quo, whereas here, people are very willing to have a conversation about what their definition could be. You wouldn’t think it’s a place that would love all these crazy world premieres and new music, but they do! I want to program things that are going to give us a sense of our place, speak to things that we’re going through together. Because I’m one of us.

Tell me how the Breonna Taylor piece came to be.

It was actually commissioned by Bang on a Can. They asked me to write a piece for their marathon, in August. I’d been in the middle of a big piano concerto that’s all composed out, and the idea of writing something else in a classical element didn’t appeal. That’s when this little light bulb went off. I asked this wonderful local blogger and activist, Maxwell Mitchell, who’s been out at every protest since day one, whether I could go through his videos and choose some of the sound to sample. Much of this was taken from a protest right outside my house. It’s an extraordinary moment when you realize, this is history happening in front of you. I worked on samples which might be a car, or a chant, or someone shouting, all the way from angry to funny to just ambient, and we loaded them onto a keyboard. Then I created an EDM [electronic dance music] track that could be performed live. And now I have a version of it as a full recording, with a music video also taken from the samples.

Coincidentally, I just did a profile of Charles Amirkhanian, who was working with collages of sound on tape, back in the ’70s.

This is an example of an effect of the pandemic: I’d never bothered to properly learn how to use software. But it’s just part of the package of being a 21st-century musician in a moment like this. You have to have the ability to properly record yourself, edit yourself, produce a track, and create a video. Though it doesn’t mean you have to throw out any of your existing knowledge and skill set. We have to compete with the world we’re in, not the world we wish we had.

I had a conversation with a donor about an hour ago, and I said “yes, people are stuck at home right now, but let’s not forget that for the future, why would we give up on all this stuff we’ve learned about presenting our concerts digitally?” In Louisville alone there are thousands of people who, having nothing to do with COVID-19, are not mobile to get to our concerts, or have financial problems. This is an embrace of a new world, though I’m terribly disappointed that it’s come at this terrible cost.

So the Orchestra itself is doing digital concerts?

We didn’t wait around. We talked about what does a season look like in a moment like this. In this season, we have digital content that involves four big concerts this fall, and four big concerts in the spring. Each one has a huge theme. And the musicians, on top of that, choose music that they want to record, relating to those themes.

You have administration channeling and realizing all of this?

Teddy Abrams

We have a wonderful artistic team. The head of that department is Matthew Feldman, who came from the LA Phil — I’d worked with him when I was a guest conductor there. And another thing that’s making this all possible is a group called Kentucky Performing Arts. They were building a new concert hall that they wanted to be a rock and pop music venue. They brought us on board to talk about how we could make it a home for the Orchestra, and we talked about great models like the New World Center [in Miami Beach], National Sawdust [Brooklyn], and SoundBox [at Davies Hall]. When [the Louisville facility] was done, it had an outdoor projection wall, a fully robotic camera system, and a control room, all ready to plug-and-play, with a complete orchestra microphone package. Our first show was November of 2019. It’s a good lesson in what it means to civically invest in what the needs may be in the future, not just meeting the needs you have now.

I want to roll the tape back for some scenes of your growing up in the Bay Area. Did your parents have a musical background? Was there music in the house?

Nobody’s ever asked that specifically. No, we had kid cassettes, but we didn’t go to concerts, not until I started taking music seriously. My mom wanted me to take piano lessons, though she never did, and that’s what attracted me to music, plunking on the piano [at age 3]. My parents are both attorneys, and my dad teaches at Stanford.

Are you ethnically Jewish?

Yes. And I found out that if you go back far enough, where our family split from Russia and Ukraine and Hungary, you find sides of the family that never came to America, and they were almost all musicians.

Why didn’t you attend middle school or high school?

It was almost circumstantial. I was supposed to go to the Crowden School [in Berkeley], and at the last minute there was some issue. At our local middle school in Oakland, there was no music. And so the great irony is, instead of going to public school, I ended up going to the inner city community college in Oakland — Laney — and then Merritt and Foothill [also community colleges].

Teddy Abrams | Credit: Chris Witzke

Were you comfortable?

It was ’98, before the “hipster revolution” there. But I had the best education anybody could ask for. There were a few looks at first. When you’re sitting there in a classroom in Oakland as a not particularly worldly 11-year-old white kid who practiced clarinet for five hours a day, and you’re in an English 1A class discussing Beloved with people who’ve dropped out of high school or who are middle-aged and want a broader education, it’s a very special education!

Sounds like you didn’t feel deprived.

I loved my fellow students! I didn’t back then connect well with people of my own age: being that curious about music — when no one else around you is — makes you very different. But in community college that didn’t matter, people were interested in you, and they were mature human beings. It did mean that, later on, I had a lot backtracking to do, socially.

And musically, you had another sort of education, reportedly sparked by a revelation at a concert.

That was when I was 9, my very first symphonic concert, all-Gershwin, [with] the San Francisco Symphony at Stern Grove. I’ll never forget the sound of the Star-Spangled Banner, when MTT walked out. I didn’t know who he was. But as soon as I heard those sounds, I said, I want to be a conductor. I wrote him a long, long letter right after the concert, asking for conducting lessons. And Michael responded. I got a letter back from him with wonderful advice. [Abrams has that letter framed on his bedroom wall.] Then I started coming backstage with my mom or my dad, and Michael would always make time to talk with me, even when Nancy Pelosi was standing around.

Teddy Abrams on the podium | Credit: O’Neil Arnold

And you were taking both piano and clarinet lessons.

I was in the [SFS] Youth Orchestra, and Michael set me up with teachers: Peter Grunberg from the Symphony was my score-reading and music-theory teacher, and I studied piano with Paul Hersh at the [SF] Conservatory, and clarinet with David Breeden. These human beings shaped my life with their generosity.

But MTT also positioned you on the podium.

I must have been 14, and Michael said, “You should have a chance to come conduct a really great orchestra and experiment in a very safe place. Come down to the New World Symphony, and we’ll set aside a session.”

The Louisville Orchestra was the first to establish its own record label, on which they put out a generous share of new-music premieres.

When I found the right opportunity to bring Michael here, he stood on the podium and said, “I want to tell you what a great honor it is for me to be here with you, I grew up listening to all of your recordings, which were the only way to hear all this music which you commissioned and made a tremendous impact on music history with.”

Had Louisville scouted you?

I don’t think so. What happened was, Peter Pastreich, who used to run the San Francisco Symphony [as executive director] was working for the Louisville Orchestra as a consultant, to help put themselves back together after the bankruptcy [in 2010] and a strike. Then he came to see me conduct a kids’ concert with the San Francisco Symphony, and he said, “I really think you should go to Louisville, I’m going to tell them that they should see you.” I wasn’t even thinking about a music-director job; you don’t do that when you’re 24. But it changed my life. I feel deeply that music doesn’t have its full potential until you use it. People say it’s a universal language, but they’re often not comfortable actually doing the work to put that platitude into practice.

And you keep practicing in a number of different dialogues of that language.

I started improvising on piano from a pretty early age, and nobody told me that improvisation wasn’t classical. At Curtis, I had a mentor named Ford Lallerstedt who encouraged me to think of everything as improvisation. It doesn’t mean you have license to be disrespectful to the talent and craft of classical music and other genres, it means you have a passport to them, to the worlds of jazz, bluegrass, klezmer, and hip hop ...

All of which you’ve traveled to with the Louisville Orchestra.

And with the Sixth Floor Trio, which I formed with my friends — we all went to Curtis together. We had a gig with the Knight Foundation to travel around the country playing pop-up concerts, called Random Acts of Culture. If we were going through Tupelo, we’d come up with an Elvis tune and play it that night.

Does it help to be young?

There’s a reputation of an old maestro wearing tails, generally of European extraction, who floats above everybody else, and I’ve tried to break that down. It’s not a good look for us.

I’d heard that your advent had increased ticket sales and subscriptions at least 30 percent. What do you do in Louisville when you’re not in the public eye?

I love, love, love biking. I’ll go for half a day; that’s how I get away from things. You get to the bluegrass and the rolling hills in a matter of 20 minutes. And though it’s a very different beauty from what I grew up with, I can tell you, as a biker, it’s not flat!

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