Embracing the future of orchestras: An interview with Teddy Abrams

Teddy Abrams

Teddy Abrams photo by Arnold O’Neil

Known for his riveting interpretations of the classical repertoire and boundary-breaking audience engagement, Teddy Abrams embodies the National Orchestral Institute’s goal of creating the symphony orchestra of the future. As music director of the Louisville Orchestra and established pianist, clarinetist, conductor and composer, he’s on the front lines of connecting with musicians, audiences and students.

Abrams will conduct the National Festival Orchestra’s June 18th performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.  The performance also includes Maurice Ravel’s La valse, and Claude Debussy’s Jeux. Tickets are available here.

We spoke with him via email to get his take on working with young musicians, connecting with audiences and more.

Why is working with young musicians, such as those participating in the National Orchestral Institute, important to you?
TEDDY ABRAMS: Working with young musicians is a part of the ancient, multi-millennial, cycle of artists learning, growing and then sharing their understanding of art and life. This critical circuit allows for collective cultural wisdom to be shared and expanded, and it forms the basis for the creation of meaningful, engaged art that speaks to its own time while also transcending individual generations.

How can we better engage new and more diverse audiences in orchestral music?
TA: Orchestras and orchestral music are genuinely magical. I tell kids and adults alike that experiencing an orchestra should be overwhelming, awe inspiring, powerfully cathartic and exceedingly entertaining. Ensuring that every performance achieves these ambitious goals is the first step to engaging the broadest of audiences, as these qualities are universally perceptible.

Next, we should not wait for audiences to come find us. Musicians are the most mobile of artists and we should take advantage of that mobility. Play music for people wherever they are. One of the core functions of music is to, paradoxically, both complement and transcend human activity. So we should climb on the stage or jump off it, but find opportunities - however creative - to ensure that communities encounter our music-making.

Finally, avoid what I call musical "racism.” Orchestras are binding organizations; they bring people of all backgrounds together. A divisive philosophy of what music we ought to play limits our audiences and alienates vast groups of music lovers. I always start with this simple question when choosing projects and repertoires: is this music, whenever and wherever it's from - great? And if I love it, shall we play it?

How do you envision the symphony orchestra 50 years from now?
TA: The clichéd axiom of an increasingly connected, shrinking world is certainly grounded in truth, but from a humanistic and communal perspective our global society can be shockingly fractured and divided. Globalism and technology have provided great gifts for the species, but the cost can be dystopian distraction and a lack of genuine communion. Art is supposed to break down these barriers and open our world to a shared experience of understanding, empathy, and primal energy and spirit. I can't predict what the world will look like in fifty years, but starting from a place of trying to connect our world - regardless of backgrounds and differences - in an essential way through music will make for better and stronger communities and ensure the health and vitality of the orchestral institution.