Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Teddy talks: New orchestra conductor is on a mission to bring music to the people

photo by Sam English

The front door is open at Teddy Abrams’ new NuLu home as another reporter walks up, ready to take a turn in the month-long charm offensive that is the Louisville Orchestra’s plan to win back the younger audience thought lost to them. At 27, Abrams has proven himself to be an intelligent, hard-working and driven conductor, composer and musician.

His offstage wardrobe includes neat, stylish jeans and sneakers, and he gets around on a bicycle. But this is not Portlandia; Abrams has been studying and working for more than half of his life, and his journey has taken him from San Francisco to Philadelphia, Budapest, Miami, Detroit and Louisville.

In addition to Whitney Hall, the orchestra recently performed a free Sunday concert at Iroquois Amphitheater, and Abrams has appeared everywhere from the Village Anchor and Decca to Churchill Downs and YPAS. At the latter, he spent 90 minutes rehearsing a three-minute section of one piece in minute detail, while also offering life lessons and making jokes to put the students at ease.

If he sounds like a politician running for office, that’s not far off. Abrams stresses the value of connecting person-to-person with audience members. He responds to every letter, email and tweet, and stays after events to shake hands.

The simplest things, like talking on stage before each piece, sharing its story or trying to help the audience connect to it emotionally, goes a long way, he says. “I always say, ‘Museums really hit on something,’ because there was a time when they didn’t have explanations for paintings. Somebody came up with that idea. It changes your entire way of looking at it.”

Abrams with YPAS students
photo by Frankie Steele

Abrams’ job includes trying things that are new or unexpected. Pianos in the front room of his house are connected to speakers, so if he’s practicing, passers-by will be able to hear the music outside on East Main Street. He just needs to remember to turn off the speakers when he’s done — like he has to remember to turn off the microphone pack on his back when he takes a bathroom break while filming for the new web series, Music Makes a City Now, chronicling his adventures at work, at home and around town.

“We have this opportunity at the start of the season — eyes are on the orchestra and on Louisville. We need to capitalize on that,” he says. Last year, Abrams sat in several times during a turnaround year that found the orchestra in the black once again, with some thanks going to film composer John Williams for spending a night at Whitney Hall. Indeed, Williams’ theme from E.T. was on the set list again last Sunday. It was a selection that, predictably, delighted both children and their parents.

The question Abrams gets most frequently is, of course, “How do you get young people to come back to the orchestra?”

“As if there’s a secret. There’s no secret.” This impasse leaves Abrams and the rest of the organization determined to take to the streets, online, to schools like YPAS and U of L, and even to young bands, whether they come from rock, jazz, bluegrass or other genres.

Abrams started improvising on piano at age 3, and his love for music kicked in when he joined the school band on clarinet at 8. His parents took him to the San Francisco Symphony once in the late ’90s, and he knew that night what he wanted to do with his life. Abrams wrote a passionate letter to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and by 11 was his student.

Abrams’ education included exposure to the great old Louisville Orchestra albums that helped make its name worldwide (composer John Adams was among many who sent Abrams a note congratulating him, saying, “This is a wonderful orchestra”).

“That’s a big deal. The brand is very important. And that’s something most orchestras of this size don’t have,” Abrams says. “We can’t just repeat what they did 40 years ago. The same ideas, same inspiration (are still needed) — but in a contemporary setting.”

Saturday’s performances include an orKIDStra performance of “Cirque de la Symphonie” at 11 a.m. and an all-ages performance at 8 p.m., both in Whitney Hall. Tickets are available at

c. 2014 Insider Louisville

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