Photo by O’Neil Arnold.
Interview by Scott Dowd. Entire contents copyright Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.
This month The Louisville Orchestra begins a new epoch with the introduction of music director Teddy Abrams. An accomplished conductor, musician and composer, Abrams will establish himself here as the music director of a major American symphony orchestra by challenging audiences and musicians to reexamine their ideas. The season promises to be an exciting year of exploration and resurgence. Earlier in the summer, Abrams assumed the role of music director of the Britt Music Festival in Jacksonville, Oregon. Most often referred to simply as Teddy, the maestro spoke with me from Jacksonville during the festival’s final rehearsal period in late July.
Scott Dowd: There are certainly a lot of changes happening to you at the same time this year! You started your career just south of Oregon in California.
Teddy Abrams: Yes, I’m originally from Oakland, California.
SD: Are you from a musical family?
TA: Not really. Nobody in my family played an instrument until my generation, although some of the extended family who stayed behind in Eastern Europe – Russia, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine – were musicians.
SD: You have spent some time in that part of the world the past few years as resident conductor of the MAV Symphony Orchestra in Budapest.
TA: Yes, MAV, which is a railroad like Amtrak, began sponsoring an orchestra back in 1945. There are many orchestras in Hungary. Even Budapest has about ten professional, full-time orchestras. It’s a very different cultural world there. The MAV is one of the bigger ones, and they are excellent.
SD: It would be great if some of that culture could be transferred here.
TA: Yes, it would, but this is a cultural difference that runs to their roots. People in Hungary have a very strong tradition of going to live art performances. It’s the same with theatre and opera. There are many companies, and performances are very rarely anything but sold-out.
TA: Of course, they have their own economic model and certainly have their own issues. But they could learn a lot from the U.S., and there are things we could learn from them, too.
SD: In addition to conducting, you also perform as a chamber musician. How do you balance that part of your life?
TA: Obviously, the glue that holds everything together has been the conducting work. That’s primarily because it’s the thing that is scheduled the farthest in advance. But I’ve always considered performing to be equally important – especially the work I do with my trio. That’s a core part of what I do. But conducting is great because it can stabilize all the other elements of musical performance that interest me. Other things are able to revolve around my conducting schedule and create new opportunities for collaboration.
SD: The past two years you have been in Detroit as the assistant conductor working with Leonard Slatkin. Like the Louisville Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony has been facing some serious challenges. How would you describe your experience there?
TA: I loved it. I had an amazing job. It was just the two of us on the conducting staff, so there were tons of conducting opportunities – meaty and challenging – but very worthwhile activities that I was assigned to do there. The Detroit Symphony has an interesting history. They came out of a challenging labor period, and part of the arrangement that ended that strike was a new and very altruistic community music program. We created a lot of new opportunities that got the Detroit Symphony out into the community, reaching new audiences and reshaping the orchestra as a community-building group – not just one that performs in a hall downtown. My role was to help shape the development of this new vision. I was there for an absolutely fascinating time, and I like to think I made the most of it. I worked as hard as I possibly could to support that mission. I subscribed to it one hundred percent, and I believe in that orchestra. It was the relationships I had there, mixed with those experiences of watching the orchestra grow into a wonderfully relevant, positive force in that city, that helped me take the job in Louisville.
SD: You had a wonderful role model in Leonard Slatkin, but your primary mentor is another world-famous conductor.
TA: Michael Tilson Thomas is the person who inspired me to want to become a conductor in the first place. I was already a musician, but watching him conduct the very first orchestra concert I ever saw – it was all Gershwin – I decided right then and there that is what I wanted to do. I wrote him a six-page letter, and a week later I got a response! A couple of seasons later, we started working together. He sort of took charge of my musical activities and got me on a very positive path when I was about twelve. From then on I’ve had a really close relationship with him as a mentor and a friend, and I look up to him as one of the really inspiring figures in all of music making. He is a brilliant human.
SD: He has always been so creative and innovative in every aspect of his career. I am very interested in your ideas regarding programming and how that might shape the future of the Louisville Orchestra.
TA: That’s going to have to be something that develops over time as I get to know the community. My whole approach to programming is that while we have to know our audiences and what they want, we also have to know what they need. It is the balance between the two that creates the challenges and the excitement. The contrast encourages people to come for reasons they already know about and, hopefully, create new experiences they had not considered before. I compare the programming element to being a chef: The right ingredients are critical for creating a great meal – you simply can’t do anything interesting without interesting ingredients. In this case, we have a great orchestra but the question is, What is it that we’re going to show to the world musically? Of course, Louisville Orchestra is known for new music and creating wonderful recordings of world premieres of contemporary music.
SD: What are your thoughts on that for the future?
TA: I feel strongly that we won’t have a truly successful musical world until we have demand for, and caring and excitement about, contemporary music. I don’t mean a particular style; I mean whatever the music of “the now” happens to be. And that isn’t something we should leave up to fate. We can help shape and direct that.
SD: As a contemporary composer, what are your ideas about music of “the now”?
TA: There has always been a connection between populist music – folk music – and whatever might engage people and the world of so-called “classical” composers. They didn’t used to be so divergent. It’s been more of a recent thing that those worlds have been so split apart, and that has always bothered me because I love playing Bluegrass and folk music from this country and eastern European folk music. I play Klezmer or rock or whatever it might be, and I do a ton of improvisation! I’ve always wondered why these things that I enjoy so much have to be in different worlds? Why can’t these worlds combine? That seems more in line with some of my favorite composers, too – like Stravinsky with Russian folk culture, Gershwin with American folk culture, Mahler and the musical experiences he had, and the same with Ives – than the direction a lot of musical organizations have taken recently.
SD: From where do you draw inspiration for your own work?
TA: I’m not sure I can just sum it up, although of the people who have played it (mostly people I am very close with because I usually write just for them), they have all said there is a distinctive element to it. That element is hard to isolate right now, but it is a synthesis of the things I like and enjoy. Counterpoint, for instance, is one of the most important elements of Western music. I find it to be one of the most enduring and challenging elements to both the mind and the ear. It is something I celebrate because it has perhaps most exceptionally defined Western music. Music from around the world, of which I have become enamored and have enjoyed playing, has all been mixed with that. In a way, it’s sort of the same as the composers I’ve just mentioned. Mahler, Ives and the others were trying to represent the world as they experienced it in sound. Beethoven drew on clear references his audiences would have understood and that have endured. He filtered those ideas into the message he was sending, and that is what I am trying to do, too. In my music, you will hear popular strains, jazz, rock and folk; but it all becomes part of the message I am trying to send. That’s just a little about the background processing that goes on when I’m composing. Ultimately, I hope it is a very authentic and organic compositional experience.
SD: You used one of your compositions in a new and interesting way as an educational piece with the New World Symphony Orchestra.
TA: That was not something that I was asked to do or required to do, but I thought it was something important to do for me and for the project. We had an opportunity to do a webcast of our educational series to every single music program in south Florida. I felt the opportunity required something special. It had to be general enough to appeal to the diversity within these programs and at the same time speak up to the kids – never down. So I thought I would write a composition that takes apart what a piece of music really is in a fun way. It would be a composition that would actually be built on the spot while the kids watched all the decisions that a composer has to make while creating music. I thought that would be really engaging, especially considering that, historically, pieces that involve some sort of narration have been among the most popular in the repertoire.
SD: Who narrated the piece?
TA: I decided to do it myself. I created segments where the orchestra played alone and then I turned around and led them in. I don’t think there is anything quite like it out there. Also, because of the way it’s put together, I’m not sure anyone except me can conduct it!
SD: Would it work for other audiences?
TA: Oh, yes. I did it in Detroit, and I’m sure I’ll do it in Louisville at some point.
SD: It sounds like it will be in the spirit of Robert Whitney’s “MakingMusic” concerts.
TA: His concerts were a lot like Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts.” A lot of people I’ve met in Louisville got their first musical experiences at “MakingMusic,” and they are very happy to know that it continues to this day. Of course, we have to think about it in terms of the era we live in, and there are some significant differences. We have some very positive things like technology that give us access to music no human culture has ever experienced before. On the other hand, we have far fewer music programs in public schools. Even if they still exist, they are under more stress – less funding, fewer instruments, maybe less vigorous standards. We have positives and negatives that we are looking at from a music education perspective. The future of music – and I don’t mean whether it exists or not, but what it’s going to look like – depends on our educational choices now. If we live only in a consumer culture in which we consume music but we don’t practice it as a general principle, we’re going to run into some major issues. People who appreciate and care about music the most are the ones who make it. Almost without exception, the most devoted audience members I’ve met have had some experience making music themselves at some point in their lives. That can’t be discounted.
SD: You used technology in a very interesting way at Carnegie Hall with the YouTube Symphony. How did that come about?
TA: I was the assistant conductor for that project, so I was helping out as needed. I’m not sure anyone knows yet what the impact of that experiment will be. But the most important aspect of the project for me was the opening up of possibilities. It showed that YouTube is not just for passing the time. It is a great educational tool and a resource for any genre, whether it be music or visual art or history or any other educational discipline. Rather than saying “The YouTube Symphony was this…,” I’d rather say it showed us the possibility of using technology in a way that actually supports our missions. That is what we should be doing. The Detroit Symphony, for instance, has a webcast in which every single one of their subscription concerts is available for free. I was involved in many of those either as a host or a commentator or a conductor. I love that because it says our audiences are global, and that is what the YouTube Symphony was showing – that musicians are also global – and maybe we can find ways of linking people and working together in creative and more modern environments.
SD: It sounds as though we’re in for some innovations here in Louisville!
TA: I am hoping so. I’ve experienced technology in so many different ways now. For instance, I was just playing a concert with a group of extraordinary folk musicians. Every time we would run through a piece, they would all take out their phones and voice-record every single run through. At night we would listen to the phones and used that to decide where we wanted our arrangements to go. That is a simple, but very effective, use of present technology.
SD: At the core of the orchestra is, of course, the musician. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach as music director to working with the musicians and helping them to grow?
TA: This first entire season is about us getting to know each other. I need to learn their capabilities, their strengths, and identify the elements we can continue to work on. I know this is a very talented orchestra. They are great now and they still have great potential. I need a chance to really experience what this orchestra can do – to push them and let them push me to explore new limits and establish new goals for ourselves. I want all the musicians to sound great, to be virtuosos and to produce an orchestra of high musical quality…and I also want members of the orchestra to have a certain status in the community. This is not just me coming in to conduct. The musicians of the Louisville Orchestra are also stars. They should be the people whom the community knows and cares about and feels comfortable talking to when they see them.
SD: Do you get the sense the musicians will be receptive to this kind of attention?
TA: Well, it goes both ways. I am going to ask the musicians to be ambassadors for the organization 24/7, and that’s also the way I see my job. I already have a house in Nulu I am renovating with the idea that it will be a real center for music. I want to create a shared space for the orchestra there so that people can come in to watch open rehearsals or concerts in the evenings in a cabaret or salon setting. I hope the musicians of the orchestra will use it for coaching, teaching, chamber music or whatever musical opportunities come up.
SD: What have you planned for the 2014-2015 season?
TA: There’s not a single theme to the season, but the guiding principle was exploration. I want to showcase the abilities of the orchestra and what the relationship is going to be with the community, among the musicians and certainly with me. The programs are diverse and the soloists are extraordinary. Storm Large is coming September 25 and 26. She is a wonderful character with such a great spirit, in addition to being a truly dramatic performer. I love the fact that she is not necessarily from the classical world, but she sings “The Seven Deadly Sins” as well as anybody. We are also doing Carmina burana – I know this piece puts people in the seats, but the whole thinking there was to do something really creative. Many people assume that Carmina is a religious work, but Orff is playing with that idea, because it is a completely secular work and quite bawdy, over the top and risqué. So I thought we would do a miniature festival concert of sacred and profane music. We’re going to explore various ideas of what that might mean. At the end of the season, some of my favorite artists – the musicians in Time for Three – are coming to Louisville. They went to Curtis a few years before I did, and I’ve worked with them many times. They represent the best energy in performance that I’ve ever seen. They’re all about showcasing versatility and virtuosity by showing that with great classical training, they can play anything and make it their own. I thought, “We don’t need to give them a Pops concert. What they do can fit perfectly with any of our subscription concerts.” We can bring that energy right into the Hilliard Lyons series.
SD: It sounds like you are going to be blurring a lot of lines and challenging people to think about music and what it can be in a new way.
TA: That’s exactly right. That is what I want to do and what, historically, some of my favorite musicians and composers have done. They have all wanted people to question, and they have always explored the ideas between the technical side of writing great music and the idea that great music should also be populist and reach large numbers of people. Our charge is to bring people together!
Subscriptions for the 2014-2015 season of the Louisville Orchestra are available at The Kentucky Center box office at 502.584.7777 or online at kentuckycenter.org. To find out more about the season and what is planned for individual concerts, go to louisvilleorchestra.org.