Teddy Abrams has spent his entire career redefining what it means to be a conductor.

“It’s about so much more than simply appearing in front of your orchestra. You have to be a vital part of your community as well,” said Abrams, 34, music director of the Louisville Orchestra, who will be guest conducting the Pacific Symphony Nov. 11-13 in Costa Mesa.

The musical world has taken notice. Musical America, this country’s authoritative voice of classical music, recently named Abrams conductor of the year. From his earliest days in Louisville seven years ago, Abrams has made a name for himself by connecting the orchestra with the community at large in surprising and crowd-pleasing ways.

Many music directors spent the pandemic on the sidelines after public concerts were cancelled. Not Abrams. “I knew it was a time to get creative and active,” he said.

Early in the pandemic, Abrams organized “Lift Up Lou,” collaborating with Louisville’s mayor to offer the city’s residents live and shareable musical content and presenting innovative ideas to help people stay connected. Abrams also organized a session that brought together some of Louisville’s most famous and accomplished musicians to record a collaborative song called “Lift Up Louisville.” Benefits from the project went to the One Louisville COVID-19 Response Fund.

Teddy Abrams. Credit: Photo courtesy of Opus 3 Artists

An accomplished pianist, Abrams performed a series of one-man pop-up shows on his electronic keyboard in neighborhoods around the city. He also offered personal 10-minute online “comfort concerts” throughout the pandemic and co-hosted a radio show called “In This Together” on WUOL Classical Louisville (90.5 FM). 

Abrams believes conductors shouldn’t lose touch with the experience of performing on an instrument. “The relationship between creating and interpreting or performing music needs to be something that’s nurtured,” he told Voice of OC. “This side of musical expression is so critically important, especially now, and it’s often one that’s kind of suppressed within the broader classical music community. The idea that everybody should find their voice as a composer, creator, improviser, is really central to my thinking. It doesn’t mean that they have to do that professionally or have pieces played, but I think that everybody should have that experience and find that part of themselves as a way of learning and growing.”

Abrams has an expansive view about what kind of music should be tackled by a modern symphony orchestra as well.

“I actually think one of the great American musical innovations, especially when it comes to orchestral music or what might be called ‘establishment’ music, was the synthesis (of classical music) and popular styles and idioms with composers like Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin — individual voices that were informed by the extraordinarily rich popular output that this country has produced. That’s something I’ve always found really important. I play lots of styles of music and love them all, from bluegrass to rap to jazz and rock.”

Looking for New Ways to Connect

For the Pacific Symphony, Abrams will be conducting a concert that includes some longtime audience favorites, including Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” As is his custom, he’ll be presenting some newer work by contemporary composers as well — in this case, two women whose music he knows and greatly admires. Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, part of the upcoming program, has become a concert staple for good reason, Abrams said.

“She has this way of internalizing a good 500 or 600 years of music history and then expressing it in a way that doesn’t sound like anybody else. There are these references to Renaissance music, even medieval music, and Beethoven and Copland and American folk music. And somehow it doesn’t sound like it’s a pastiche.”   

Copland’s beloved “Appalachian Spring” holds a special place in Abram’s heart, the conductor said.

Pacific Symphony

Teddy Abrams, conductor
Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Gabriela Frank: Concertino Cusqueño
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
Caroline Shaw: Entr’acte
Aaron Copland: “Appalachian Spring Suite” (full orchestra version)

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 11-13 

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Tickets: Starting at $38

Info: pacificsymphony.org

“I’ve been doing this piece probably as long as anything. I first conducted it when I was 14 years old.”

The Copland work ties in with Abrams’ relationship with his mentor, renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. “Thomas was doing a year-long residency at Carnegie Hall. And as part of this, he was doing a whole workshop on ‘Appalachian Spring’ with young musicians. And he decided that he didn’t actually want to conduct it. So he (asked) me to do it instead. I remember studying every inch of that score over and over.”

With the Mendelssohn violin concerto, the main event of the Pacific Symphony program, Abrams says his main role is making sure that violin soloist Rachel Barton Pine and the orchestra are on the same page in terms of interpretation.

“My goal as a conductor with any soloist is to make sure that their vision for the piece is shared by the entire orchestra. My (job) is to translate whatever their direction and their artistic stance might be, so that the entire orchestra can not only support that, but participate in it.”

As a guest conductor, Abrams knows he can’t really put his own personal stamp on a work such as the Mendelssohn. “There’s not the time to go bar by bar and say, ‘Well, why don’t we try this? Why don’t we try that?’ So it has to be an interpretation that’s instantly understood by everybody.”

Abrams is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences, something that will become increasingly important as the world finally moves past the pandemic.

“I think that more than ever, we have got to use language that advocates for the importance of what we do and not (indulge in) the self-satisfied attitude of saying, ‘Oh, we play great music, and it’s so important to preserve that, and how nice that our community can have a symphony.’ I think we need to speak about what we bring to the community on a deeper level. I think people realize that events with meaning have been missing from their lives during (the pandemic), and they want to capture that feeling again.”

Abrams sees a city’s symphony orchestra being just as central to its identity as a sports team. “And I think that anybody that’s been to a concert recently that was really powerful knows why these institutions are so critically important.” 

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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