Teddy Abrams is a young conductor with huge ideas.
Abrams, 27, who will lead the New World Symphony this Friday and Saturday, is still in his first year as music director of the Louisville Symphony, and he is already doing his part to change the way that audiences and orchestras interact.
His programming is challenging industry norms. Many American orchestras are reluctant to take risks with programming. In a short season, one doesn’t usually expect concerts to stray too far from overtures, concertos and symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Brahms.
But Abrams’s programming in Louisville has rivaled that of even large, progressive-minded institutions like the New York Philharmonic. In 2015-16 the Louisville Symphony’s 10-concert “Classics” series, which makes up the meat of the orchestra’s offerings, will include two programs devoted entirely to American music, presenting, among other items, the world premiere of a piano concerto by Chase Morrin. Also on the docket for the season are Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto, Martinů’s Symphony No. 6, and a commission by composers from the Curtis Institute of Music. The orchestra premiered one of Abrams’ own compositions early this season, and a new ballet is slated for the coming year.
Abrams feels he can take this approach in part because whatever he programs, the challenge of audience engagement remains largely the same — a lesson he learned from his longtime mentor, Michael Tilson Thomas.
“It’s very rare that people tell me they actually have a problem with the music itself,” Abrams said by phone from Louisville. “One of the things that I learned at New World from Michael was that the way you introduce people to and show them and lead them through music has a tremendous influence over the way that they perceive the sound, the way they perceive these compositions and understand the music.”
Building a conducting career in an era when music organizations of all sizes are being forced to reinvent themselves to draw in new audiences presents a unique challenge. As passionate as Abrams is in discussing music itself, there is an added sense of urgency in his voice when he talks about the future of the art form that he loves.
The biggest “problem,” he believes, lies in convincing audiences to take ownership of their musical experiences, and even making them comfortable enough to form their own critical judgments.
“I think that a lot of our issues stem from the fact that people don’t think that they have that empowerment to be strong and creative listeners, that they’re forced to listen, and that they’re forced to listen in a certain way,” said Abrams. “I’ve found that by making a personal connection with audiences, by talking with them and getting them excited about the music, and helping them to have a map or guide, it gives them an insight into how they can appreciate or understand this music. It’s as simple as saying, ‘You have the right to make a decision about how you perceive this music. You don’t have to think that this music is good before it even starts.’”
Much more than just planning and conducting concerts, Abrams says he believes part of his job as music director is to reshape the way that audiences perceive music and the concert experience. This can mean finding different ways of presenting the orchestra’s offerings.
In Louisville, Abrams has experimented with various formats and ensembles, concerts of different lengths and concerts in various locations. He’s even been known to set up his piano keyboard in a coffee shop.
But cultivating an audience is a process that he says starts long before the concert begins. “Any chance I get, I’m essentially evangelizing for the orchestra. Because each time I build a connection, it makes people that much more open to and excited about the possibility of the music that we play.
“I call it the slowest marketing strategy in the world, but it’s the most effective, and it’s the most necessary.”
An active pianist, composer and clarinetist as well as conductor, Abrams uses his varied musical talents to connect with audiences in unusual and unlikely places. He is among a growing number of young musicians rediscovering the role of improvisation in classical performance (examples of which can be found on his website), and he collaborates with local musicians from all sorts of genres.
A believer in bridging the gaps of musical styles, Abrams is excited to draw inspiration from outside the traditional sphere of classical music.
“If you look at indie rock bands, people feel very personally connected to the performers in the groups, and when they go to the concerts, they know the music, they know the words to every song, they have this intense personal relationship with both the performances and the performers. That is cultivated long before the concert actually starts. And that needs to happen at the symphony orchestra.”
This innovative spirit, he says, is something that was impressed on him during his long association with the New World Symphony, where he studied for several years before his tenure as conducting fellow from 2008 to 2011. “It’s an organization I love very deeply,” Abrams said. “I’ve watched it become a symbol for the entire country — I think for the entire world, now — of great, innovative work. And I feel I kind of grew along with the organization, because when I first started coming out to the New World Symphony, it didn’t have that same kind of international influence.”
This weekend’s concerts in Miami will be of tremendous personal significance for Abrams. Among other pieces, he’ll be leading Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, one of the first pieces he conducted with the New World Symphony, more than 10 years ago.
“To kind of come full circle and to do it again, it’s a very meaningful personal experience for me, and very moving — that I’m coming back to this orchestra that gave me so much of what I’ve learned.”
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If you go
Teddy Abrams will lead the New World Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday at New World Center in Miami Beach, presenting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra. On Saturday, he will lead the orchestra again in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and will be joined by Joshua Bell for a performance of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. nws.edu