Music Spotlight: Teddy Abrams

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Bluegrass and Brahms? The rising-star maestro is making Louisville fall back in love with classical music.

Whenever a true original comes around, it’s a tempting if ultimately futile exercise to seek points of comparison and precedent. Such is the case with 29-year-old conductor Teddy Abrams, who in his short tenure as music director of Kentucky’s Louisville Orchestra has rallied the city, improbably, around classical music. His gifts as an educator and sense of civic responsibility are reminiscent of his hero, Leonard Bernstein. His sugar-high energy and enthusiasm for spreading access to orchestral music recall Gustavo Dudamel, the flamboyant young maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His unkempt curls, sideburns, and rimless spectacles suggest a hipster Franz Schubert.

Louisvillians might be more inclined to compare Abrams to Harry Potter, and not just for the verve with which he wields a baton. There seems indeed to be an element of magic to the way he resurrected the Louisville Orchestra, a once prolific commissioner of new works by the greatest midcentury composers, which had fallen victim—like so many regional symphonies—to bankruptcy and labor  disputes. Since the Berkeley, California, native took over, in 2014, he’s proved as deft a politician as he is a musician, collaborating with local bluegrass, indie, and hip-hop artists, and lugging his keyboard to as many public and private functions as possible. The city has paid him back, helping the orchestra exceed ticket goals before the current season even started. “He’s an extraordinary citizen,” says Mayor Greg Fischer. “He doesn’t expect anything in return except for the appreciation of music.”

It was Fischer who proposed that Abrams write a symphony about Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali. The composition, which includes segments of rap and spoken word, reflects the conductor’s efforts to sweep the cobwebs out of classical music. (You’ll never catch him in a tailcoat.) “I love Brahms and Beethoven, and we still play that a lot,” Abrams says. “But I think the balance needs to go more in the direction of what people during Beethoven’s and Brahms’s time would have actually heard, which is mostly music from their era.” Excerpts from Ali Portrait will be performed by the Louisville Orchestra April 28 and 29; louisvilleorchestra.org.