Teddy Abrams is a fresh face in the classical music world. The 28-year-old conductor of the Louisville Orchestra is the eighth and youngest music director in the organization’s 78-year history, and he’s hoping to use his position to make classical music more accessible. His own Louisville Concerto, a collaborative work that premieres Friday, incorporates folk, rock and hip-hop.
Abrams spoke with NPR’s Rachel Martin from the studios of Louisville Public Media in Kentucky to discuss engaging with broader audiences and the value of putting young contemporary composers on the same concert programs as Brahms. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Rachel Martin: Earlier this year, you presented a concert with two different symphonies, which for you was partly an experiment to gauge audience reaction. Can you tell us about that?
Teddy Abrams: On this program, we present two first symphonies: the first symphony of the great composer Brahms, and a first symphony of a living composer, Sebastian Chang, who is just a couple years younger than me, actually — 26 when he wrote it. I wanted to see how people, especially first-time concert goers, would react to hearing these two different first symphonies. So, I invited tons of people in my neighborhood — I just gave free tickets to all of them — and gauged what all of their reactions were.
It was fascinating because, for the Sebastian Chang symphony, we had Sebastian there. We brought out a piano, and he and I talked before the performance of this piece. He demonstrated the work on the piano and how he came to improvise the themes, and he sat down and actually played his thought process for the whole audience. When I talked to a lot of people afterwards about the experience, many people said, well, that Brahms piece was wonderful, it was beautiful — but we felt really emotionally connected to the Sebastian Chang. The experience of hearing that piece premiered with the composer there, explaining the thought process and the reasons for its existence was very powerful and very compelling, and was such an affirmation that what we do is incredibly alive.
I often like to make the reference to what a chef has to go through. Unlike a chef preparing a single meal, I am preparing a year’s worth of meals for an entire community of, in this case, 1.2 million people. [And] not only meals that are going to be attractive and are going to be fun to eat, with ingredients that people already love, but you also have to make them nutritious. You have to make them interesting for the chefs that are preparing them. You have to do that for an entire year, when you’re thinking about what your season is going to look like.
I’m convinced that my job is two parts: It is to provide for the needs of everybody, but it’s also to provide for their wants and the stuff that they want and care about already that deserves to be heard. But people can love and care about so much more music than what they’re already aware of, and so it’s very, very important to me that not only do we bring pieces that people don’t know to the table, but we also demonstrate — more than demonstrate — we are an active participant in the creation of music now.
You’re a composer yourself. What do you find makes something accessible with a broader audience? And how do you balance that with keeping the music challenging?
Well, there were a couple of model composers that really pioneered how to rectify the divergence between wanting to be new, creative, and come up with sounds that nobody’s heard before, and actually connecting with the people.
For instance, Charles Ives, even though many of his pieces are really thorny, he used American folk songs and hymns to actually make up the body of his work so that the references would be clear, emotionally, to his audiences. Aaron Copland, realizing that modernism wasn’t necessarily working out in terms of connecting with the people listening to his music, included all sorts of Americana right in his works, whether they were cowboy songs or all sorts of ditties that people would have recognized. You find them quoted very famously in Appalachian Spring with “Simple Gifts,” a famous song.
Or people like Gershwin — incorporating jazz, genuine jazz, into his compositions — understood that the connection between populism and being true to your style is a really important balance.
This coming weekend, your orchestra will premiere the Louisville Concerto. If I ran into you on the street and you wanted me to show up for this performance, what’s the story that you tell me? How do you get me to go watch this?
We have two different composers that are represented, really: We have this Louisville Concerto, which is a joint work, and then we have Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Now, “Eroica” is a work that was pioneering and adventurous in its own time. The Louisville Concerto, I hope, is the same kind of thing.
We’ve chosen four musicians, all of whom are extraordinary artists in their own right, but none of whom are orchestral, classical musicians. We have a folk and rock violinist, Scott Moore; a hip-hop artist named Jalin Roze; Will Oldham, a really extraordinary, visionary musician also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy; and Dani Markham, a great percussionist with tUnE-yArDs.
All of us have come together to create this new piece. Each person got to elect a composition that would feature them, and then I bound the whole thing together in a genuine concerto, just like Mozart or Beethoven would have written. It features both them as a soloist and the orchestra in more than a supporting role, in a really genuine collaborative role. So, you’re going to hear hip-hop, folk, rock and all sorts of other styles of music in a piece that I think could only be produced right here, in this town.