Teddy Abrams: Articulate in Difficult Times
In this Articulate special, we explore the life and work of conductor and composer Teddy Abrams. The thirty-something music director of the Louisville Orchestra is reviving and revolutionizing the relationship between the orchestra and its community.
Teddy Abrams is a prodigiously talented conductor, musician, and composer.
Born in 1987 in Berkeley, CA, Abrams began playing piano at age 3 and clarinet soon after. By age 12 he was studying conducting with the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. He earned a degree in music at San Francisco Conservatory of Music at age 18 and was the youngest conducting student ever accepted to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.
Abrams was assistant conductor of the New World Symphony in Miami from 2008 to 2011 and of the Detroit Symphony from 2012 to 2014. When he was named music director of the Louisville Orchestra in 2014, at the age of 27, he became the youngest conductor of a major orchestra. A PBS web series, Music Makes a City Now, followed the first two years of his tenure, as he revitalized the struggling company with innovative programming and outreach.
Abrams is also music director of the Britt Music & Arts Festival and has guest conducted and played keyboard and clarinet with ensembles across the country. He is an award-winning composer. His rap-opera, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, premiered in 2017.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the big ideas behind great creative endeavors. I’m Jim Cotter and in this episode, “Teddy Abrams in Concert and Conversation,” we explore the life and work of conductor and composer, Teddy Abrams. The 30-something music director of the Louisville Orchestra is reviving and revolutionizing the relationship between the orchestra and its community.
Teddy Abrams: I actually decided that I would approach my way of relating to people here in Louisville, much the way that a candidate runs a campaign but in the best sense of—how do you run a successful campaign? By simply putting out your genius ideas and letting people come to you because you’re some great prophet? Absolutely not. You engender and foster relationships with the people by being out there, by being a human being, talking and more importantly, listening to them, meeting them.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Teddy Abrams sometimes likes to free hike. Out in nature, he picks a far off spot, says, “I’m going there,” and sets off to find his way, ignoring the well traveled trails and paths. It’s a good analogy for how Abrams lives his life.
Abrams: I just like to get away as far as possible from you know, where things are normal and where things are kind of comfortable. And I think that’s part of what I’m looking for is this sense of communion with something that’s totally new. And I know there’s nothing really uncharted that I’ve been to, but sometimes it feels that way. And you know, picking a point and saying, “I wonder if I can get to it,” gives you that rush.
This mindset has propelled Teddy Abrams, a prodigious musical talent. Composing, conducting and playing piano and clarinet saw him, at 27, become one of the youngest music directors ever of a major US orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra. In the past seven years, he has helped resurrect the once-struggling orchestra by making it what he calls an essential public service.
Abrams: We take as a postulate that music brings people together and is a strengthening agent in society. How could we apply that in a way that no one else has done? Not simply defining ourselves by putting on shows, but saying what does it mean if we were to bring our city together by tearing down the barriers, tearing down the walls that we’ve built for ourselves, using it the way its meant to be used as an open free flowing method of communicating.
Abrams’ connection with music had an early and unassuming beginning. When he began improvising on the family piano at age three, it was clear that he had found his bliss, and as he progressed his non-musician parents soon realized that their son had a prodigious gift that was giving him access to an understanding of the world that was far beyond his years.
Abrams: Classical music, if you’re open to it, gives you this fluidity and this openness that allows you to seamlessly walk in other worlds if you choose to make that something you want to do. As a kid, I wanted to play the Brahms clarinet sonatas, when I was nine I wanted to play the Mozart clarinet concerto. And I struggled a lot because people around me all the time were saying, you can’t understand this music, you haven’t had life experiences, you haven’t loved, you haven’t done things in your life that would give you an insight into how Brahms as an elderly composer at that point, was pouring his life into it. And this is where I think music has a unique and powerful connection to something that even allows very young people to transcend what they’ve actually seen, what they’ve actually experienced firsthand. You can’t tell a 10 year old, No, you can’t play this music because you haven’t lived enough. Yes, you have because in being able to play it, you’ve accomplished something as a human being and you have an insight into the humanity behind it and that’s valid.
Abrams had a hunger to grow. After attending a San Francisco Symphony concert as a nine year old, he wrote to the orchestra’s music director, the now legendary Michael Tilson Thomas, asking for conducting lessons. Tilson Thomas responded, and would later bring Abrams to work with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and with the New World Symphony in Miami. Abrams would become the youngest ever conducting student to be accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music, alma mater of Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. One of his first high profile appearances, was at Carnegie Hall, conducting Aaron Copeland’s iconic Appalachian Spring.
Abrams: This was the first big assignment with a really great group of musicians, certainly at Carnegie Hall. And I devoted myself fully to it. And it was the first piece that I spent that much time studying, trying to understand and interpret, and it sank down so deep into who I am as a musician, because of course, Copeland has this remarkable history where he started off as a relatively avant garde composer. Yes, he was inspired by jazz at an early age, but it kind of was interpreted through this lens of very dissonant, angular music. In the midst of World War Two, he somehow creates something that is so deeply comforting, and gives you a kind of pride in an Americanness that’s not flag-waving. It’s not jingoistic Americanness, it’s a deeper sense of what we came here to do, to accomplish, to connect with each other, to recognize a simplicity. And it was exactly what the country needed at the time. And for me, all those elements of the power of music to represent, the power of music to cut through some of the greatest difficulties experienced in history and the power of it, to actually go beyond being a performance piece and represent maybe a society and offer us a view of what we can be. It’s all in that, that one work. And that’s why I love it so dearly.
Abrams would go on to work with a range of orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony, the MAV Symphony Orchestra in Budapest, and the Britt Festival Orchestra in Oregon. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Louisville came calling. The orchestra was in trouble. It had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010. And labor disputes led to the cancellation of its 2011-2012 season. A radical solution was needed. Enter Teddy Abrams and his belief that music could build community. But first, he knew that he needed to build understanding and trust, a constituency. And he did it by bringing the music out of the concert hall and onto the streets.
Abrams: I actually decided that I would approach my way of relating to people here in Louisville, much the way that a candidate runs a campaign. But in the best sense of—how do you run a successful campaign? By simply putting out your genius ideas and letting people come to you because you’re some great prophet? Absolutely not. You engender and foster relationships with the people by being out there, by being a human being, talking and more important, listening to them, meeting them. So my first thing that I did here was I’ll show up anywhere. It doesn’t matter where, day two of the job, literally day two, the mayor of Louisville asked me to come and play out in the streets. He was doing something, they called it cycLOUvia. They blocked off all these major streets and had bicycles and walkers go up and down, out in Louisville’s West End, which is a historically black neighborhood and actually a very diverse part of town. He said, “Will you come and bring your keyboard and we’ll pick you up and set up?” I said absolutely, I’ll come, I’ll set up the keyboard right in the middle of Broadway, I’ll play there. You just say yes, you show up and meet people.
But a new attitude would be nothing if it were shrouded in dusty traditions. So Abrams began commissioning and composing new work, much of it deeply connected to the city. In 2017, the Louisville Orchestra premiered Abrams’ own evening length work, The Greatest. The so-called opera/rap/oratorio mashup tells the story of Muhammad Ali, the legendary Louisville native who forever changed sport and America.
(Excerpt from Muhammad Ali’s I Am the Greatest)
I am the greatest! This is the legend of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today. He talks a great deal and brags indeedy, of a muscular punch that’s incredible speedy. This brash young boxer is something to see and the heavyweight championship is his destiny. He is the greatest.
The piece includes excerpts from Ali’s own writings, as well as speeches from Lyndon B. Johnson and Malcolm X, and poetry by Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou.
(Excerpt from Teddy Abrams’ The Greatest: Muhammad Ali)
I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: as the man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could, as a man who stood up for his beliefs, no matter what, as a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer, who was a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.
Abrams: And I actually started writing the shorter piece. That was what it was supposed to be. But I quickly realized by about two days into it, that that was not at all the scale and scope. And I went back to the drawing board, and started researching Ali’s life and recognizing that you’re dealing with one of the most iconic, important human beings of the last century. It’s not crazy to say that a guy from just you know, a couple miles down the road here in Louisville, was one of the best known human beings in history. And you can’t write a 12 minute piece about Muhammad Ali. He’s outsize. Everything about him is outsize, just over the top. And actually, the form of the piece was determined by the research.
(Excerpt from Teddy Abrams’ The Greatest: Muhammad Ali)
I had a dream in Africa with one hell of a rumble, I beat up Tarzan for saying he was king of the jungle. I’ve wrestled with alligators and tussled with a whale, I done handcuffed lightning, and thrown thunder in jail. You know I’m bad, last week I murdered a rock. No pretender I’m the winner and the cinder on this block. I injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make the medicine sick. So fast, I run through hurricanes and don’t get wet. When George Foreman meets me he gonna pay his debt. I can drown the drink of water and kill a dead tree. Wait till you see Muhammad Ali. Everybody say I am the greatest. Say I am the greatest. 1960 chilling with the rumble, King Mufasa struttin’ through the jungle. If I run it back, never fumble, ask me why I’m confidently humble. I was born and papa Cassius taught me well. He made it to heaven but he went through hell. Never mind your cash, you can’t degrade us. Instead of being great we the greatest. Victory lap, history rap, living through these dreams but they rarely get to happen. Wake up and be great, as great as you can be. And then one day you’ll see, Muhammad Ali.
Abrams sees music as a vocabulary to process and understand the most intense human experiences. When the pandemic hit, he hosted zoom concerts that people could sign up for on social media and played custom sets based on how the participants were feeling. When protests erupted over the death of Breonna Taylor, a black woman shot by Louisville police in her apartment, Abrams composed You Can’t Stop the Revolution, an electronic dance piece using 70 sound samples from the protests.
And as he was programming virtual performances for the Louisville Orchestra in 2020, Abrams turned to the 20th century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, a composer who wrote of strife, of conflict both shared and personal.
Abrams: I saw Stravinsky as kind of a musical metaphor for adaptability. Let’s just think about Stravinsky’s lifespan and the things that he dealt with, from dealing with the Russian Revolution to yes, the pandemic, to World War One, World War Two, somehow a crisis of identity with the Soviet Union, having kind of rejected him and him having rejected that, coming to America, changing musical styles constantly from his early Russian phase to his neoclassical phase to his jazz phase to his serial phase. This is a person who dealt with the big historical roadblocks of the 20th century, and came out totally different and totally himself each time. And I think that, in dealing with a moment where it’s like, we can’t even find our footing because we’re always adapting. We can never just like be one thing for a second here, we’re having to adapt to something else that’s thrown at us as as artists, as just people, overall. Stravinsky represented the person who was able to see clearly what the world needed from him, and could still be Stravinsky.
Like Stravinsky, Abrams turns to music in times of change and uncertainty. In the aftermath of the 2020 US presidential election, he began extemporizing, making music that was a response to his own and to the national mood.
Abrams: I started going to the piano and just improvising and improvising and improvising between the night of the election and the day that we had an announcement, in theory, of who the President would be. It was like keeping a journal and writing. And I spent I mean, just countless hours just at the piano, I must have recorded 50, 60 pieces of music. But it was such a reminder to me that even though yes, I love talking, I’m happy to talk about philosophy and the reasons and the you know, the inspiration and everything like that and tell stories. But you know, my real language is in music. We know that Bach and Mozart and Beethoven were voluminous improvisers. We know that they spent a lot of their time doing nothing but that and it’s no wonder then that they had a fluency in the writing of music because it comes from the exact same place of inspiration.
And so, when Teddy Abrams offered to create a custom improvisation for us, we couldn’t resist the urge to up the ante.
AJC: Can I offer you a challenge then for this improvisational piece?
AJC: Minor chords, but cheerful.
Abrams: Oh, that’s good, minor chords that express joy.
AJC: Can I lay something on top of it?
AJC: No typical time signatures. So no four fours, no waltzes, no marches. Okay, undanceable. How about that?
Abrams: An undanceable minor chord but somehow positive piece.
Teddy Abrams believes that exploring, improvising, and experimenting are key to understanding, being ever open to the possibilities for creating new connections and finding innovative ways to bring new life to age old traditions. He is a free traveler, who, on spying a distant destination, fearlessly sets off to find a new way there, always in the hope that others can join him on the journey.