It seems like the set-up for a joke: A bearded young rocker type walks up to a classical conductor in a Southern bourbon bar. But there’s no punchline — the rocker just says to the maestro: “Hey, man, I really love what you’re doing with the orchestra.” This real-life encounter is a reminder that Louisville, Kentucky, isn’t the usual Southern city, and Teddy Abrams isn’t the usual classical conductor.

At almost twenty-nine, Abrams — a protégé of Michael Tilson Thomas — is the youngest music director of a major American symphony orchestra. And Louisville isn’t just the home of the Kentucky Derby and surrounded by such prime bourbon distilleries as Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark. An oasis of blue in an otherwise red state, Louisville is also a proudly quirky, arts-loving city, home to beloved theater, ballet and opera companies and the history-rich, if recently cash-poor Louisville Orchestra. That’s not to mention all the bluegrass, folk and indie-rock groups here, including hit homegrown rock band My Morning Jacket and such avant–Americana luminaries as Will Oldham. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Abrams is in his second season at the helm of the Louisville Orchestra. He has become his own brand of rock star, an ebullient, tousle-haired dynamo and talk of the town. 

When Abrams isn’t conducting the Louisville Orchestra in Beethoven or Bernstein at the Kentucky Center downtown or leading a children’s concert at the Brown Theatre, he and players from the orchestra are getting out into the rest of the city, performing in a church, synagogue or community center. Or he’s giving a talk at a college or working with a high-school ensemble. Or he’s improvising a score to a silent film on the organ or jamming on clarinet with a bluegrass band. Abrams has invited local musicians of every stripe to collaborate on Louisville Orchestra programs, from rockers to rappers. Abrams and players from the orchestra joined My Morning Jacket onstage at the Forecastle Festival, with singer Jim James alluding to the conductor’s catalytic zeal in his introduction to the huge outdoor crowd: “Teddy has been bringing excitement back to the city and to the orchestra.”

The Louisville Orchestra’s previous music director, Jorge Mester — who served in 2006–14, as well as in 1967–79 — never lived in the city full-time. But Abrams insisted on putting down roots, even though he’s only contracted for twenty-one weeks in town. A fan of the relative affordability of Louisville, he was also taken by what he calls the “genuinely warm, open quality” of its people. Arriving in Louisville after assistant conductor positions with the Detroit Symphony and New World Symphony, Abrams bought and renovated a lovely old house in the NuLu neighborhood, an area marked by hip bars, restaurants, coffee shops and performance spaces. His art-filled home is on the main drag in NuLu, and Abrams wired speakers out front; so when he’s rehearsing, passersby can hear his playing on the sidewalk — a sort of subliminal community outreach. 

If not born into his vocation, Abrams was certainly bred into it. Careful to shepherd his precocious mind and obvious musical talents, his parents arranged for him to take courses at community colleges instead of going through middle school and high school, giving him more flexibility to practice both piano and clarinet. He ended up getting his bachelor’s degree at the age of eighteen. He graduated as a piano major at the San Francisco Conservatory; then he was the youngest ever conducting student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. But Michael Tilson Thomas had become his mentor long before, thanks to a letter Abrams had written the conductor when he was just a boy. 

“I only wrote two letters to famous people when I was a kid: one to Michael Tilson Thomas and one to Lindsay Lohan — and MTT was the one who answered,” explains Abrams, who is an affable, excitable torrent of communicative energy, onstage or off. “He has been such a giant inspirational figure for me. For one thing, he doesn’t go with the flow — he leads. He thinks about where things could and should go. And like Leonard Bernstein, he has the force of will, the charisma and the talent to realize that creative vision. MTT has also built up trust with the community in San Francisco. People recognize that if he presents something, it will be interesting and worth your time — even if you have little idea of what it’s all about beforehand. That sort of relationship with your audience is what I aspire to here.”

It appears that Abrams’ aspirations in that regard are already being rewarded. Louisville native Holly Houston, an attorney, columnist and arts supporter about town, says: “Teddy really is a pied piper for the Louisville Orchestra. He’s such a natural entertainer that it has become ‘a thing to do’ for people to go see the orchestra play in a way that it wasn’t before Teddy arrived. The orchestra feels more relevant to more circles of people.”

Onstage, Abrams very much cuts his own youthful, non-maestro figure, with casual concert attire and quick, funny introductions to the music — which are a hit with audiences. As for his relationship with the orchestra, violinist Rob Simonds says: “I think the orchestra knew Teddy was special, but we didn’t know he was this special. Likewise, I think he thought Louisville was going to be a good opportunity, but I don’t think he thought it was going to be this good.

On the banks of the Ohio. Louisville was first settled to give riverboats a place to unload before reaching the Falls of the Ohio. It would become a major port city and a prominent conduit for escaping slaves. 

Arts Make a City

The surprising history of the Louisville Orchestra was recounted in the 2010 documentary Music Makes a City. Through a combination of ingenuity and aspiration, the city became an unlikely hinterland home for modern music in the 1950s. A progressive mayor, Charles Farnsley, hatched a forward-minded plan with Louisville Orchestra founder–conductor Robert Whitney to make the ensemble a more notable cultural institution. They saved money on celebrity soloists in favor of commissioning new works from top composers around the world. With an unprecedented half-million dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the orchestra was able to commission and premiere more works, as well as record them for LPs sold by subscription via its own First Edition imprint. 

Pieces by dozens of international composers from Hindemith to Martinu to Villa-Lobos appeared on First Edition, while such American composers as Cowell, Piston, Hovhaness and Rorem gained exposure through the label. One of Elliott Carter’s most popular works, his Variations for Orchestra, got its initial renown on a Louisville Orchestra LP. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe also broadcast the premiere concerts across the globe. In 1959, a delegation of Soviet composers including Shostakovich even visited Louisville as a cultural capital. Since 1985, the University of Louisville has taken up that tradition of new music with the lucrative Grawemeyer Award for composition, with past winners ranging from Lutosławski and Takemitsu to John Adams and Kaija Saariaho. 

Will Oldham, a forty-six-year-old singer–songwriter who has released myriad albums (many as Bonnie Prince Billy, among other monikers) and had his songs recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, was born and bred in Louisville. He got into music through punk rock, yet grew up knowing that the Louisville Orchestra was a source of civic pride. His parents had a set of First Edition LPs. He narrates Music Makes a City, and has already collaborated multiple times with Abrams. Reflecting on the city’s arts-friendly atmosphere, the singer says: “It always felt like a given here that the arts are a vital part of a community. You almost expect it to be that way everywhere. But having toured around the world, I came to find out that this isn’t the case. Whether it’s the Louisville Orchestra or the Actors Theatre or visual artists or indie-rock musicians here, there’s something in the water that instills a belief that making art is a viable, valuable pursuit.” 

With the arts come idiosyncrasies of a native variety that can help brand a town, even now. “Louisville has always taken pride in being a little quirky — you know, wearing a big hat to the Derby and all,” says violist Jonathan Mueller, an Ohio native who has been with the orchestra since 2006. An Austin, Texas–inspired local motto of “Keep Louisville Weird” was even adopted by the Louisville Independent Business Alliance. 

Yet even with the ensemble’s storied past and the city’s attractive present, the Louisville Orchestra hit hard times. The orchestra declared bankruptcy in December 2010; then came a labor dispute in fall 2011, with the musicians going on strike for all of the 2011–12 season. That led to a marred image and lost audience. After management and musicians finally got themselves together in April 2012, sixteen players had left and the season reduced from thirty-six weeks to thirty. Over the past few years, the orchestra’s finances have reportedly stabilized. Still, a longtime champion on the Louisville Metro Council passed away, contributing to a painful loss in funding. Even reissuing the First Edition tapes has had a checkered history, with a company that took orchestra grant money to digitize, remaster and release the music on CD having allegedly absconded following the initial wave of work.

After all that, the Abrams effect has helped fuel new optimism in the Louisville Orchestra. His eagerness to galvanize the community even includes making fundraising calls or improvising on the piano after dinner at a donor’s home. The organization is certainly hitching a ride on the conductor’s star — his name is even part of the Louisville Orchestra logo. Andrew Kipe, who came on board as the orchestra’s executive director just as Abrams joined, says: “In a short time, Teddy helped us change the conversation from drama to hope. So we make no apologies for taking full advantage of Teddy’s celebrity here. We’ve made him the face of the orchestra, because we needed a figure that the community could bond with — it’s hard to get subscribers back once you lose them. But he has helped us rebuild confidence with both listeners and our donor base.”

At home. Abrams has set down roots in Louisville, where his tireless advocacy and community outreach are putting the history-rich Louisville Orchestra — and classical music — back on the map.

A Born Proselytizer

Orchestra board member Andrew Fleishman, an attorney who is also president of the Chamber Music Society of Louisville, says the orchestra isn’t sitting on much extra cash, but “the metrics are pointing up,” echoing Kipe on the appeal of Abrams for benefactors. “No local donor wants to give money to an ensemble just because it makes great music. They want to know three things: Are you educating our kids? Are you an economic driver for our community? Are you elevating the quality of life here to draw and keep the best and brightest? Teddy helps us fulfill that mission in the most organic way. He inspires people to want to help.”

In a characteristic venture last fall, Abrams joined the orchestra’s trad-jazz combo to perform during a shift change at Caldwell Tanks, a Louisville manufacturer of industrial storage units. They played a few jazz standards — and Abrams improvised off TV themes on an electric piano — for more than a hundred workers on the factory floor in gratitude for Caldwell’s sponsorship of free orchestra concerts at Iroquois Park. Abrams said between numbers: “The definition of an orchestra is changing. It’s not people just coming to us — we want to come to you.”

Bernie Fineman, owner of Caldwell Tanks, says: “I don’t think anyone from the arts has come out to the factory in thirty years. But Teddy is redefining what the orchestra means to Louisville, for me and a whole lot of other people. The musicians were playing fun stuff today, but I think everyone here would appreciate it just as much if they had played a Beethoven string quartet. It’s the fact that the orchestra came out here to thank us for our support. It makes me that much prouder to be associated with the Louisville Orchestra and to help how I can.”

If charm plus energy equals charisma, Abrams has it in spades — particularly with young people. At Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Abrams gave one of his patented “Teddy Talks.” It was an off-the-cuff lecture that managed to cover both the philosophy and mechanics of music, toggling from one to the other as he ranged from Monteverdi to Stravinsky, referencing Aristotle along the way. The audience — students of diverse backgrounds and majors — had likely never before given much thought to most of what Abrams was discussing. Yet they were totally with him from the get-go, taken by his easy blend of virtuosity and humor. Abrams is a born proselytizer for music, whether he’s talking to school kids of any age, members of an arts club or regular folks at a bar.

Owsley Brown III, the producer/co-director of Music Makes a City — and a fifth-generation shareholder in Brown–Forman, the old-line spirits and wine firm that’s a big giver to the arts and other causes in Louisville — was inspired by Abrams to follow him around town and beyond for a new documentary web series called Music Makes a City Now. Twelve five-minute episodes from last season can be seen so far, showing Abrams playing around Louisville; rehearsing with the orchestra, soloists and young composers; and working with the New World Symphony in Miami and with his genre-bending chamber group the Sixth Floor Trio at his home.

Incredibly, given his go-go-go pace, Abrams finds time to compose, too, writing songs, piano pieces, chamber music and orchestral works. His most extensive creation for the orchestra has been an arrangement: Louisville Concerto. The work, which premiered last autumn, saw Abrams weave together features for four performers related only by their origin in the city’s non-classical scene. It juxtaposed Oldham, rapper JaLin Roze, drummer Dani Markham (on a full rock kit) and fiddler Scott Moore, classically trained but steeped in bluegrass and rock. As a sprawling mélange of jazz–rock/hip-hop/Americana fusion, the Louisville Concerto is no masterwork; but it brims with affection for a broad range of music — and the natives who make it. The performances felt like a special event, the packed-house reaction enthusiastic. About the experience, Markham says: “Teddy’s open, collaborative spirit radiates to the orchestra, too. They were so encouraging to us non-classical players. We didn’t feel any genre boundaries at all.” 

Abrams is capping his second season in Louisville with his most ambitious project so far: a spring festival tracing over a century of American music from Ives to electronica. Along with works by John Adams, George Antheil, Benny Goodman and Aaron Copland (his Clarinet Concerto, featuring Abrams as soloist), the program includes music by deejay/composer Mason Bates, the premiere of a piano concerto by Chase Morrin and a suite of pieces by Kentucky native Rachel Grimes. Another promising inclusion will be Bull Frogs Croon, a new bluegrass-inflected collaborative composition by Abrams, folk singer–songwriter Aoife O’Donovan and fiddler Jeremy Kittel. Although the programming picks up on past Thomas initiatives in San Francisco, the festival is colored by Abrams’ own enthusiasm for jazz and the regional music of the Bluegrass State.

A spirited city. Louisville — home of the Kentucky Derby and the handcrafted Woodford Reserve distillery — is a mecca for bourbon and horse enthusiasts.


Believing, Yet Questioning

In rehearsal with the orchestra, Abrams belies his boyish mien with an ultra-quick, fully authoritative manner. Yet as a recent performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony made clear, the conductor can ask for things that he still can’t quite get from the Louisville Orchestra. Acknowledging the work-in-progress, Abrams says: “I’d love to have the orchestra be able to sight-read a piece of contemporary music one day and then play a Baroque work without vibrato the next, both equally well. We’re not there yet. But a well-played concert isn’t the only goal. I firmly believe that having a reason for playing is just as important as playing really well.”

To the ears of Dr. Ric Albrink, a “Yankee from Connecticut” who has been a subscriber to the orchestra since moving to Louisville in 1975, Abrams has raised the ensemble’s level of play. Albrink points to the season-opening performance of Bernstein’s Mass, an elaborate piece that he has known for decades. “It was wonderful in a way that I don’t think the orchestra could’ve managed before,” he says. Moreover, he adds, “Teddy will stay after a concert like that and talk with anyone until the last person leaves. He has a genuine interest in all kinds of people and what they think. It’s easy to stay in a bubble and just follow the rules, which is what many classical musicians naturally do. But Teddy doesn’t seem to be that sort. He actively wants to take risks, to do things differently.”

Abrams says the problem with symphony orchestras today is that “they are so afraid of failing that they don’t give themselves a chance to really succeed.” He continues: “It would be the equivalent of the film industry only ever making sequels. Of course we’ll play Beethoven — we don’t want to take that pleasure away from listeners, or ourselves. But I think we all benefit from hearing Beethoven in the context of other music, whether it’s early music or contemporary works.

“I don’t have all the answers, obviously,” Abrams adds. “And I realize that there are musicians in the Louisville Orchestra who have been dealing with the challenges of playing in an orchestra since before I was born. But I do know that we have to try new things — orchestras have to lead. I think you can simultaneously believe in the institution of the symphony orchestra and question it. We should all be concerned that a Louisville Orchestra event isn’t just a nice concert — it should be an artistic experience for all involved.”

To that end, it’s a new day in Louisville. Kim Tichenor, acting assistant principal of the second violin section, says: “I’ve been in Louisville now for fifteen years. At first, when people realized what it is I do, they would say, ‘Oh, I hear we have a wonderful orchestra here.’ I’d ask, ‘You’ve come to see us?’ and they’d often reply, ‘Um, well, not yet, actually. . . .’ Then during the bankruptcy, it was more like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry what’s happened to the orchestra.’ But since Teddy has been here, the reaction has been different: ‘Oh, I had such a wonderful experience seeing the orchestra. That Teddy Abrams sure is something, isn’t he?’ ”


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