I think it was probably midway through the Louisville Orchestra’s 2015 performance of Bernstein’s “Mass” — a colossal, moving and highly experimental production — when I first started to worry that Louisville would lose Teddy Abrams.
Abrams signed with the organization as music director in 2014; he was 26, making him the youngest music director of a major American orchestra. He has since garnered plenty of national attention as the “energetic young maestro” who has connected classical music with the community, collaborated with rock stars (looking at you, Jim James) and even starred in the PBS web series, “Music Makes a City.”
So when I found out his contract with the Louisville Orchestra was up this month, I — and several of my music-loving friends — braced ourselves for the news that Abrams was moving on.
It turns out those fears were unfounded.
The orchestra announced Monday that Abrams renewed his contract for three years. Each season through 2019-20, he will not only conduct the orchestra for a full 12 weeks but also undertake an additional six weeks of community engagement and administration — more than is offered by any other conductor of a top metropolitan or regional orchestra nationwide.
“If you had asked me three years ago, ‘Would you imagine yourself renewing and staying in Louisville for another three years?’ I would have said, ‘Absolutely, yes!’” Abrams says. “I knew when I took the job, I was making a real commitment to this town, and to the orchestra, and to the culture here in Kentucky.”
He says there was an initial period of figuring out whether the partnership would work well long-term; he likened it (jokingly) to an arranged marriage in which there isn’t a lot of time beforehand to iron out any kinks.
“As music director, you have to jump right into it, so I wanted to make sure that the relationship was going to be successful,” Abrams says. “But I had full intentions from the beginning of making a real commitment to this place — I really love it, and it’s not something that I just tell people.”
Credit to the Musicians
Abrams says looking back over the last three seasons, he is most proud of the Louisville Orchestra musicians.
“I am so impressed with how they have really risen to every challenge and crazy idea I have thrown out there — I do know that I come up with some pretty out-there, wild things,” Abrams says.
He says the musicians are playing at “the most incredible level right now,” citing their most recent performance, in which they played the one hour and 10 minute suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” amid an already complex program.
Abrams also thanks audiences in the city.
“The audiences have been so willing to go in some very exciting, new and experimental directions, and it has simply made the orchestra stronger and better,” he says.
Looking to the Future
On that note, Abrams says the experimentation period is far from over. He has two overarching goals for the next three years.
The first is to find a balance between performing music of eras gone by — masterworks by Beethoven, Mahler and Bach — with pieces that speak to our current social and political climate. Abrams is looking at music that addresses the Black Lives Matter movement and is composing a piece about the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali.
“I think that keeping this open spirit to how music can actually provide a kind of social stimulus, and maybe even a social change, is going to be a big part of what we do,” Abrams says.
The second initiative — which Abrams says is in the early planning stages — is focusing on using the Louisville Orchestra as a vehicle to reach Kentucky communities outside the city.
“Something that I am thinking a lot about is how can the orchestra serve everyone in the state?” Abrams says. “That’s a project that I really want to see happen in the next three years. How do we use the orchestra to start bringing folks together that I think need to be together?”