Louisville, Kentucky has gotten used to the fact that the maestro rides his bike to concerts. No limo, no tux for him. At 32, Teddy Abrams is the youngest conductor of a major orchestra in the United States, and in Louisville (if it's possible for a classical musician) he's a rock star.
His approach to programming, he told correspondent Martha Teichner, is very unusual. "Part of it has to do with my background.as a musician. [It] involves playing lots of styles of music that are not classical, involves a lot of improvisation, and involves a lot of collaborations with people that normally don't work with so-called classical musicians."
People such as Louisville native Jim James, from the rock band My Morning Jacket.
A success story? Absolutely. In four years here, Abrams has done what most orchestras are desperate to do: he's increased the audience by 30%.
So, why Louisville, of all places? You need to know about its musical history.
The bow James held at a recent performance belonged to his great-aunt, Betty Cheeseman, who was a member of the orchestra for 28 years going back to its founding in 1937, in response to the worst disaster in the city's history.
Local leaders decided what the devastated community needed to boost morale was music. A decade later, the orchestra ran into financial trouble; again, Louisville's response was radical. It commissioned new works by living composers – more than a hundred over the next ten years – and became the first orchestra in the United States to start its own record label.
Louisville became an important musical destination. But by 2013, the orchestra had once more fallen on hard times – bankrupt, reeling from a nasty labor dispute. Again, it decided to go bold.
Enter Teddy Abrams. At the time, he was assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, and former boy wonder. Growing up in Oakland, California, he was already a musical prodigy when his parents took him to see the San Francisco Symphony at the age of nine.
"I remember seeing the conductor come out onstage, listening to the first couple of notes, and I said to myself, very clearly, 'That's what I want to do with my life,'" he said. "That night I wrote a letter to the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, who had conducted that concert, Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the great conductors in the entire world."
The reply is framed, hanging on Abrams' bedroom wall. It concluded with the recommendation: "Keep your ears open and enjoy."
"This was an amazing response, because he took the time to really give me the guidance that would be the foundation for a life as a musician and as a conductor," Abrams said.
Like ingredients in his recipe for success, to that Abrams added his own irrepressible enthusiasm and a respect for Louisville's musical past. "That history meant that there was something special in the waters here, and it still existed. And the great thing about coming to a place after kind of a tragedy, is that people are willing to try something, to try anything, do something. There are no rules anymore. And I thrive under those circumstances."
When Muhammad Ali died in 2016, Abrams set up his keyboard and played for gathered mourners. And like a musical poet laureate, he wrote an opera about Louisville's most famous citizen, called "The Greatest." Typical Teddy, he cast local hip-hop artist Jecorey "1200" Arthur as Ali.
The orchestra is back to commissioning new works – 19 since Abrams arrived.
He's moved to Louisville and made himself at home. He makes fans out of strangers when he plays jazz around town, and after concerts he sticks around the lobby, signing autographs and taking photos.
"A music director should, if they're going to be the music director of X orchestra, live in X, and care about the people of X, and become one of them," he said. "I often say it's just like a politician; if you wanna get elected, you better be out on the streets meeting people. And it's exactly the same thing here. What I try to do is go meet the actual people that you're going to make music for."
Even in a gym full of newly-arrived refugees, who may not have ever heard a symphony.
The worry in Louisville is that, one day, a bigger city with a more prestigious orchestra will lure Teddy Abrams away. The hope is that it won't be any time soon.
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Story produced by Sara Kugel.