Conductor of the Year:
Teddy Abrams

By Jeff Kaliss

Teddy Abrams has put Louisville firmly on the musical map. Whether writing and premiering a rap-opera honoring Muhammad Ali or promoting the power of Black music, he’s always looking for ways
for orchestras to empower their musicians.

2022 Muscial America Conductor of the Year:<br>Teddy Abrams
Photo © Chris Witzke

At age 34, Edward Paul Maxwell Abrams hasn’t outgrown his nickname of “Teddy” or the ingenuous dynamism he manifests live on the podium of the Louisville Orchestra, in numerous media appearances, and in interviews. Early in his musical education, this life force powered him through a bachelor’s degree at age 18 from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and acceptance as the youngest-ever conducting student at both the Curtis Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School. Abrams set out on his professional path at 21, as a conducting fellow with the New World Symphony, to which he’d been introduced seven years earlier by Michael Tilson-Thomas.

Tilson-Thomas first sparked the Bay Area-raised Abrams’s ambition when the nine-year-old was taken by his family to an outdoor concert of the San Francisco Symphony. Young Teddy followed up by penning a letter seeking conducting lessons with the maestro, who was then in the first of his 25 years as the Symphony’s music director. This secured him repeated backstage acquaintance at Davies Symphony Hall, occasional instruction in conducting, and recommendations to lessons in piano, clarinet, theory, and score reading with members of the Symphony and the Conservatory.

Abrams went on to earn places in the youth ensembles of both the San Francisco and Oakland orchestras. Instead of opting for a public middle school in Oakland, where there was no music education, his parents placed their 11-year-old son in a large community college, Laney, with a racially diverse student body where he found acceptance and formed vital guiding principles.

At Curtis, Abrams studied with Otto-Werner Mueller and Ford Lallerstedt. The latter “encouraged me to think of everything as improvisation, just like speaking,” says Abrams. “My mind was blown open. I realized that all the ‘languages’ of music are different dialects but come from the same essential source of communication, in the brain. You have a passport to them all: the worlds of jazz, bluegrass, klezmer, and hip hop.”

Abrams explored these genres and more with a couple of like-minded Curtis students. As the Sixth Floor Trio, they toured the country playing pop-up Random Acts of Culture concerts. Another classmate and friend, pianist Yuja Wang, took Abrams along to perform accompanying orchestral parts on a second piano when she studied concertos with Gary Graffman. 

After several years with the New World, Abrams became assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony in 2012 while regularly guest conducting or performing with orchestras across the U.S. and abroad. While guesting in San Francisco, he was advised by the Symphony’s then executive director, Peter Pastreich, to apply for the post of music director at the Louisville Orchestra, which was seeking recovery after bankruptcy and a strike. They engaged him, in 2014, as one of the youngest-ever conductors of a major American symphonic ensemble, “and it changed my life. I had to think a lot about what a leader needs to do,” he says. 

Abrams quickly found himself falling for Louisville (which he pronounces properly as ‘Lou-a-vull,’ with the middle syllable almost silent), and finding innovative ways to give back to a community that had embraced him. PBS profiled this inspirational love story in a web series, “Music Makes a City Now.” Abrams went on to compose, premiere, and record a rap-opera honoring one of the city’s favorite sons, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. While Louisville struggled through the pandemic shutdown and protests over the police killing of local medical worker Breonna Taylor, Abrams created a musical response to these crises, linked to videos, electronic dance music (EDM), and recorded sounds of the protests.

Bringing 21st-century resources to the needs of both community and orchestra was a vital part of Abrams’s input to the design of Kentucky Performing Arts’s new Old Forister’s Paristown Hall, which includes a robotic camera system, state of the art audio, and an external projection wall. "You could not ask for a better place to make music during a pandemic,” Abrams claims, noting that some of the orchestra’s online output targeted the city’s educational system, as well as subscribers. A Louisville Rap School was established by Abrams and local rapper friend Jecorey Arthur, and participating kids got to perform with the Orchestra, as well as to engage in civic social activism.

As conductor, Abrams has “always wanted to find a way for orchestras to empower their musicians.” For the Louisville Orchestra’s 2020-21 season, “our musicians had the ability to program their own chamber music and solo work, using the themes of the main concerts.” Aside from symphonies by Mozart and Adams, and a Ravel concerto (conducted from the keyboard by Abrams), the season included a new program, “The Power of Black Music,” curated and narrated by Arthur, and sessions with Americana artists Sarah Jarosz and Sam Bush. “We didn’t want to have basic charts,” says Abrams about these collaborations, “we wanted it to be more like a concerto, with the orchestra featured as much as the artist.”

Eclecticism was manifest again from the start of the 2021–22 season, with an evening of premieres of commissions by seven Louisville composers, alongside Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. In January 2022, Abrams will conduct Yuja Wang in the premiere of a piano concerto he wrote for his fellow Curtis alumna. “It’s what would happen if Rachmaninov and Gershwin had a musical child, but in the 23rd century,” he laughs. “I can’t play it myself—I’ve tried—but Yuja can.”

There’ll also be a Latin American-themed festival, including a concerto grosso for timba band and orchestra, and a new cello concerto by Adam Schoenberg incorporating a halldorophone (a cello-like electronic instrument created by artist and designer Halldór Úlfarsson). “That’s the energy of our city and the history of our orchestra, too, to be daring and adventurous,” declares the conductor. Right now he’s busy making up for pandemic guest conducting postponements and he recently piloted an all-Bernstein program inaugurating the Chicago Symphony’s immersive 4-D Ravinia Music Box theater. The Sixth Floor Trio from Curtis, meanwhile, has morphed into the Garden Music group, which tours (with Abrams on clarinet and piano) and has recorded the soundtrack to Building a Bridge, a documentary about pro-LGBTQ priest James Martin.

When he has the time, Abrams straps on a helmet and glides out on his bicycle, just beyond the limits of Louisville, where he can reflect on his itinerary. “You get to the bluegrass and the rolling hills in a matter of 20 minutes,” he relates. “And you see that when your job is not just part of some trajectory, you embrace the life you have, and make the life you have the things you want.” •

Jeff Kaliss has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is the author of numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries and program notes.