The Louisville Orchestra has named a new music director. Teddy Abrams, currently the assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, becomes the orchestra’s “music director designate” today and will step into the music director role next September, when Jorge Mester transitions to an emeritus role.
Abrams, who also serves as music director and conductor of the Britt Music Festival and resident conductor of the MAV Symphony Orchestra in Budapest, will be the orchestra’s eighth music director. At 26, he’s also the youngest. And as a young conductor, he’s frequently asked what the secret is to attracting a wider, younger audience base to live classical music. Abrams says orchestras have to be both custodians of the great works of the past and the driving force behind the next big ideas in music.
“If a large organization with the potential and power of an orchestra is not at the forefront of the generation of new musical culture, then I don’t know who’s going to be able to step up to the plate,” says Abrams.
Abrams is an accomplished pianist and clarinetist, with an active conducting career that includes recent performances with the Florida Orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Indianapolis Symphony and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony. Abrams was also the 2008-2011 conducting fellow and assistant conductor of the New World Symphony, a renowned training ground for up-and-coming conductors.
Mester’s current contract is up in 2016, and the orchestra began the search process for a new music director in earnest last November at the urging of consultant Peter Pastreich, with a search committee made up of five musicians and four members of the board of directors.
“We were a little uncomfortable at first with the idea of going out to make a hire when we still had not convinced the world that the Louisville Orchestra was back to stay,” says search committee chair Andrew Fleischman, a 12-year orchestra board veteran. ”A lot of good progress with the organization has been made since then, and we feel very comfortable that this is the right time, as well as the right person.”
Fleischman says the orchestra looked for a candidate who was not only an accomplished musician, but who could also serve as an ambassador for the organization.
“We have a core community of people who are hard-core about classical music and they really care a lot. There is also a community of people who have the potential to get more engaged if it is handled the right way,” says Fleischman.
” I’m thinking about our blossoming start-up community, our support of a great local restaurant scene and local radio stations, our interest in sustainable agriculture, and our interest in having non-commercialized, non-cookie cutter experiences. This is where I view Teddy being really helpful. He is young, savvy and energetic, and has a natural ability to be engaging.”
In a news release from the orchestra today, musician’s committee chair Kim Tichenor praised Abrams’ exuberance and his high artistic standards.
“He also has the ingenuity to design programs that are engaging, not just for the audience to hear, but for us to play. His enthusiasm is contagious, and the brief moments we have shared as a group were filled with musical chemistry,” she says.
Abrams was already scheduled to appear with the orchestra in March to conduct Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall, and he will begin programming with the 2014-15 orchestra season. He says Louisville’s layout, with downtown serving as an arts hub, provides a variety of opportunities to engage with the community.
“Great musicians making great music need to put the music in places where people are going to find it. It’s not just about where you play, it’s also how you present yourselves and the face you present to the public,” says Abrams.
One of the ways the orchestra can change how it engages the community? Start thinking of its musicians as stars.
“They are equivalent in my mind to the stars of any local sports team. And the way we perceive the stars of a sports team is, in addition to the team being one unit, we see the individuals on the team as being kind of celebrities. I don’t see any reason why the orchestra shouldn’t be perceived that way, too.”
Fleischman also picked up on the sports team metaphor, likening the music director to the coach. In addition to programming, conducting and filling vacant positions in the orchestra, Fleischman says Abrams will be critical to the orchestra’s fundraising efforts.
“If you hire a good coach who wins on the field and is engaging and likeable off the field, supporters want to be a part of it. Teddy has that sort of knack for sparking enthusiasm in others,” says Fleischman.
“What can we do to be at the forefront of our culture, not lagging behind it and hoping for the best?” says Abrams. “There’s no magic answer, because one of the biggest issues is that orchestras are kind of like a reflection of their own community. They’re a reflection of the people who live in a region – their needs, their questions, their understanding of what music is. The orchestra has to reflect that somehow.”
Abrams, who plans on relocating to Louisville over the summer, visited last season to conduct in rehearsals, then conducted the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony last month (Sept. 26) as part of a series of concerts at Ballard High School. He says in his visits, he was impressed by the passion different constituent groups, from the musicians to members of the community, have for the orchestra, despite its recent turmoil – the 2010 Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and a prolonged labor dispute that led to a canceled 2012-13 season. Abrams remains upbeat and optimistic about the opportunities those very challenges present.
“The Louisville Orchestra has nothing to be ashamed about. If it went through a challenging time, and a hard period, that just means we have more of an opportunity to step forward and re-think how we can engage every single person in the Louisville region,” he says. “It also means experimentation, research, development – things that orchestras have been avoiding for a very, very long time, and things that don’t conflict with the great music of the past, in fact they only serve to support it – those elements are now fair game, and it’s all of our collective responsibility to put forward our most creative thoughts and to make sure that happens.”