Musical prodigies aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, but acquiring the technique required to play violin or piano at concert-level ability often manifests in early childhood. Precociously talented young musicians, from Mozart to violinist Joshua Bell to pianist Lang Lang, are hardly uncommon. It is far more unusual, however, to find a young musician with the musical and emotional maturity needed to successfully lead an ensemble. Teddy Abrams, the new artistic director of the Britt Festival, is one exception that proves the rule.
At 26, Abrams has already amassed more conducting experience than someone twice his age. He remains the youngest conducting student ever accepted to both the Curtis Institute and the Aspen Music Festival, two of the most prestigious music programs in the country. Michael Tilson Thomas, artistic director of the San Francisco Symphony, took Abrams on as a private conducting student when Abrams was 11. This year, in addition to the Britt Festival, Abrams begins his other new job as music director of the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky. Prior to this season, Abrams was assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, as well as resident conductor of the MAV Symphony Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary. Abrams has also appeared as a guest conductor with a number of ensembles, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut with the New World Symphony.
“It takes a certain affinity and care for the music to be inspired by conducting,” says Abrams. “I saw my first orchestra concert when I was 9 and decided then and there to be a conductor. It was the fact that somebody was bringing together the audience with other musicians (that interested me); it wasn’t about the authority issue at all.”
Abrams epitomizes the approach of many younger conductors, which runs directly counter to the conventional image of the conductor as an egomaniacal artistic tyrant. Instead, Abrams is primarily drawn to the collaborative, facilitative nature of conducting. “The conductor is never an outright col- laborator, because he’s not directly producing sound,” Abrams explains. “You’re always a leader and you always have to have a vision, but mostly you’re the central focus of energy in an orchestra. It’s not like train conducting – starting and stopping – but energy conducting, being a conduit between the musicians and the audience.”
In addition to his conducting activities, Abrams’ musical interests include performance (he plays clarinet and piano) and composition. When asked how he finds time to pursue all these skills, Abrams answers, “For me, variety is one of the most attractive elements of making music. In today’s musical world, it’s expected that people specialize and do one thing well. Historically, that hasn’t been the case. Beethoven was not only a great composer but also a great pianist, and Mozart not only composed but also conducted and played piano, violin and viola. All these different ways of making music play off each other. The ultimate goal is to communicate at the highest level, so it doesn’t matter what format or style you choose. What matters is that you’re bringing people together.”
The art of conducting can be something of a mystery, even to conductors themselves. Abrams acknowledges the unfathomable aspects of his craft, but adds, “The technique isn’t mysterious – what you do physically and mentally – and communicating isn’t mysterious, but what makes a good conductor is. The art of inspiration and taking an orchestra to play at its highest levels is the mystery.”That transformation of disparate individual musicians into a unified whole, each working together with the conductor to achieve a single artistic vision, verges on the magical.
At the same time, other aspects of conducting remain prosaically down to earth. The compressed format of summer music festivals like Britt creates an intensely focused musical environment, in which Abrams and the Britt Festival Orchestra will rehearse and perform seven concerts in just three weeks. “Britt already has a great tradition, and my plans are to simply enhance that,” he says. “I want Britt to be an internationally ranked festival, because it deserves that.”
This summer’s concerts at Britt highlight connections between musical genres and styles. “This year we’re putting the emphasis on folk music and connecting it with composers that were inspired by folk music but writing in more classical formats.” In addition to composers like Brahms, Dvořák and Copland, who were all inspired by the folk music of their respective countries, Abrams and his orchestra will showcase virtuoso banjo player Béla Fleck in Fleck’s banjo concerto, “The Impostor.” Another cross-genre concert will feature vocalist Storm Large singing Kurt Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins.”
Abrams grew up in the Bay Area, where his family still lives. As a child he attended Shabbat school, celebrated holidays with his family and studied Hebrew in preparation for his bar mitzvah. However, as he approached his 13th birthday, Abrams explains, “things got crazy in the music world.” (Translation: he skipped high school and entered Laney Community College at age 11; a few years later he was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music and moved to Philadelphia.)
Today, Abrams says Judaism defines his identity; he is particularly drawn to the cultural facets of his heritage, as well as – of course – the fundamental connection between Judaism and music. “Many composers I program are Jewish, although I don’t know if it’s because they’re Jewish or just because I love their music so much.”
Britt Classical Festival
What: Outdoor summer performing arts festival
When: Aug. 1-17
Where: Jacksonville, about five miles west of Medford and 20 miles north of Ashland
Tickets & Info: brittfest.org