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Louisville Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams on music-making 'in our own backyard'

Teddy Abrams, conducting
Louisville Orchestra
Louisville Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams

The Louisville Orchestra’s 2022/23 season has undoubtedly been a success. But the orchestra might be measuring what “success” means differently from any other orchestra in the country. The Creators Corp was a massive investment in a full season’s residency for three composers. And it has paid incredible dividends. 54 performances of 18 works (13 of which were new).

Now they’re betting big on the commonwealth, starting with a visit to Mammoth Cave and a tour to smaller cities all across Kentucky. With a kickoff supported by none other than famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In a recent interview with conductor Teddy Abrams, he reflected on the importance and downright sacredness of knowing the people and places that surround us.

The momentum behind all of these efforts - the Creators Corps, the new work Mammoth (composed by Abrams), and the upcoming tour, is energetic and joyful. What else could it be when the goal of music-making is to bring people together?

Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the trigger? Did you wake up one morning and think, “We're gonna play in a cave?”

I had already done a project with the National Park Service at Crater Lake National Park with my summer festival, which is the Britt festival. And interestingly enough, the crew that made the documentary about that project is from Louisville. 

It ended up playing in something like 98% of PBS markets. And one viewer of that documentary happened to be Yo-Yo Ma. Weirdly enough, Yo-Yo was working on a project that had not been announced, called "Our Common Nature." That's what this is intersecting with. And that's Yo-Yo's desire to bring people closer to their natural lands. And I say not just bring people *to* their natural lands, but bring them *closer* to their natural lands. That's the key right there. It's a really important part of this - that he wants to use his music to make people, you know, find a commonality in each other through these great places.

This was two years ago. In the height of COVID lockdowns, when outside was the place to be. It would be a quick turnaround for any kind of orchestral project.

Teddy Abrams' score to Mammoth sitting on a music stand in front of an orchestra
Louisville Orchestra
Score for Mammoth by Teddy Abrams

What's the usual on ramp for that?

I would say that usually, you would give yourself a good solid year and a half of actual composing time. Not just like, you know, from the time of conception of the piece - you would actually start composing about that time. Basically you want time to revise, but in that, in that span of our year and a half of planning, this piece required a full six solid months of nothing but research and visits to the cave, and that constituted a lot of the work. And then the next part was the actual writing. It's a little bit more of a theatrical process than a normal symphonic process, which doesn't have any workshopping or anything like that. So the piece very much followed a journey from the time we started dreaming it up to the moment we're at right now.

The program notes say that Mammoth is in honor of and reverence to Mammoth Cave. What kind of honor and reverence are we giving to this cave?

The work that I've ultimately created after a lot of thinking and research and visits to the cave, and actually staying down there at the cave many times and having been on every possible tour and talk to every person that works down there at the Park Service, the piece that ultimately took shape, because of all of that work is what I call kind of a secular service in the cave. It's meant to be a place where we go to the cave to venerate and celebrate and tell its story. And it emanates that kind of sacredness. 

Mammoth Cave is particularly fascinating because it offers real evidence of the archaic woodlands people living in this continent. And we're talking about 5000 years ago, we're talking about a time concurrent with events like the pyramid building in Egypt, where the assumption is that there just isn't a lot of evidence of human activity, certainly not on that scale. For so many, you know, anthropological reasons and sociological reasons, we just don't have a lot of the same physical evidence from that era, in this part of the world.

Yet, Mammoth Cave is a rare example. Because of its preservation properties, things that stay in the cave really stay in the cave, including bodies, and including the remnants of whatever civilizations used to cave like torches and other tools, and art that's on the wall. The theory is that it may have been a place where certain rituals took place, especially for boys as they became men.

We do know that they went into the cave and went really far into the cave. These folks were going miles into the cave using nothing but cane torches, which is absolutely astounding, because remember, if your torch goes out, you can't just flip that switch and see anything. If you're six or seven miles into the cave you're done. If your light goes out, that's it.

Hear more about the history of the cave in the full interview, including Floyd Collins, of the famous ballad, as well as a visit from Jenny Lind and Ole Bull, in the extended audio version of the interview.

Teddy Abrams on Mammoth Cave.mp3

The orchestra is headed out to tour towns all over Kentucky into next season, with its first stops after Mammoth Cave in Prestonburg, Pikeville, and Harlan. It’s a refreshing move for an institution like an orchestra, who would more “classically” seek a tour to a big concert hall across the country. But the idea of making a splash is part of the Louisville Orchestra’s DNA, going back to its heritage as a home for new music in the mid 20th century.

Back in the 1950s, the commissioning project that the orchestra did was focused on impact, the idea of having the orchestra get the biggest bang for its buck, is that the thought behind taking a tour of Kentucky rather than aiming for somewhere like London, or going back to Carnegie Hall.

In an ideal world, the funding for an orchestra follows the big ideas. I'm really interested in transformational funding that allows us to do the things we're dreaming up. And this is an example of that. We've talked about doing something like this for years, but it required transformational funding to do it.

If you think about how an orchestra can grow and expand, just doing more of what we're already doing is not the answer. It has to be creative in nature, it has to have some deeper purpose and mission at its core. And if we really say our music making has the ability to convene people, to bridge different divides, to allow people that maybe have very different backgrounds or demographics to find commonality, then we are obligated to use that power. And our own backyard is the perfect place to start. Kentucky is full of all those strange divides and differences that music somehow magically cuts across. 

The urban rural divide is perhaps the most obvious and, and unfortunate of these and one that I think can legitimately be bridged and addressed through music. But it does require that and saying that rather than having the dream of just touring, you know, to London and Paris and Berlin and Hamburg - which a lot of orchestras do - maybe we should be looking at Appalachia, Western Kentucky, central southern and northern Kentucky. Because, no orchestras are going to visit them. No relationships are being built. And I want to prioritize our community. Our community extends now beyond the Metro Louisville borders and includes all Kentuckians. If there is a way that we can develop the personal relationships that result from great music-making being shared, then maybe in 20 years Louisvillians have a very different idea of parts of rural Kentucky and vice versa.

The success of the Louisville Orchestra’s Creators Corps was evident last weekend via the fantastic turnout for member Lisa Bielawa’s Louisville Broadcast. The spirit of community built around classical music proved to be resilient, even with chillier-than-expected weather.

The impact of the Creators Corp has been massive across town and now via the tour across the state. Is that what you thought it would be? I know you believed in it. But did you expect it to be quite this big?

It's so much more developed and so much more interesting. And so much more active than anything I planned. It has blown me away. And it's thanks to the three initial creators, and also another person, Jacob Gottlib, who is the manager of that program. He is the administrator behind it, he is the person who is ensuring that everything that the creators want to do gets done - that their artistic dreams are realized. 

And because of that dynamic of all these people who want to go above and beyond three creators and Jacob and the orchestra getting behind it, it's meant that the output is so much more. The number of pieces and projects that they have all worked on and developed for us this year - it's more than triple what we thought was going to happen. And that's what I was hoping would be the case: that there would be this vibrancy about it. It would be a regular thing you'd encounter in the orchestra. And it's been thrilling.

Teddy Abrams Tour and Creators.mp3

Tune in to WUOL for our live broadcast of the Louisville Orchestra's gala concert on April 27 at 8pm.

Visit LPM Classical for interviews with each of the inaugural members of the Creators Corp: Lisa Bielawa, Tyler Taylor, and TJ Cole.

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.