These days, leading a major American orchestra involves more than donning a tuxedo and marshaling the collective talents of a stage full of musicians under one baton.
“I spend about 5 percent of my time actually conducting,” says Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams. “The rest of the time, it is marketing, it is administrative work, it’s strategy, it is development – it is all the work that goes into making a successful corporation.”
That’s a lot of responsibility for an acclaimed conductor and composer who hasn’t even reached his 30th birthday. But Abrams simply sees it as what he needs to do to help ensure the orchestra – and classical music in general – remain a vital part of life in Louisville. He talked about his work on KET’s One to One with Bill Goodman.
Reviving a Legacy
This season marks Abrams debut as the eighth and youngest music director for the Louisville Orchestra. And he brings a wealth of experience to the podium. Abrams has conducted the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Indianapolis Symphony, the MAV Symphony Orchestra in Budapest, among many others.
But Louisville presented some unique challenges. Financial problems and a protracted labor dispute between Louisville Orchestra management and the musicians’ union led to a bankruptcy filing and cancellation of the 2011 – 2012 season.
“[We’re] working extremely hard to completely reshape the idea of what music and what an orchestra can be right now in a community,” says Abrams. “We’re blowing open all the definitions and all the assumptions, and trying to create a vital orchestra that is very much a deep part of everyday life in the community – something that the Louisville Orchestra had not been for a long time, but does have a legacy and history of doing just that.”
A Fight for Relevancy
Abrams says many orchestras and arts groups across the country have faced similar financial problems in recent years. He contends cultural organizations must reinvent and redefine themselves in ways that make them relevant to everyone in their community.
“We realized that to be a successful arts organization, you have to do a lot more than just what you’ve been doing, and you have to do a lot more than simply preserving something,” Abrams explains. “You have to show that you are alive and that you’re meaningful to people’s lives on a daily basis.”
For Abrams, that means taking himself and other musicians out in the community to perform at small, sometimes unexpected venues like local coffee shops. The orchestra also recently featured a pops concert with singer-songwriter Ben Folds. Abrams contends that holding tight to the old notions of a prim and proper concert hall are a recipe for failure.
“I think all the musicians… wanted somebody to come in and say, “Look, we’re going to try things. Not all of them will work, but we’re going to try and we’re going to experiment,’” Abrams says “And they have been incredibly supportive of that.”
Ensuring a Future for Music and Musicians
Abrams attributes his drive to become a conductor to a free outdoor concert he saw as a 9-year old in San Francisco. While he enjoyed the performance, Abrams says he was even more amazed by how the conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, brought the entire community together to enjoy the music.
The next day, Abrams wrote a fan letter to Thomas and asked for conducting lessons. Soon the young Abrams was studying under Thomas. He says that life-changing event inspired him to make sure others get an opportunity to enjoy music in ways that connects with their life experiences.
In addition to his duties with the Louisville Orchestra, Abrams is an assistant and guest conductor for a number of other ensembles, and he’s an active soloist (he plays piano and clarinet) and accomplished composer. But Abrams says he’s aware that he has a greater responsibility to the music, which he says includes aspects of marketing, development, and community outreach.
“We need arts leaders that are not just good at doing the art. They need to be advocates for the art,” Abrams says. “I love making music… and I recognize that without all the other elements of it, I’m not going to have an opportunity to make music or, even worse, the next generation after me will not have an opportunity to make music.”