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How a young conductor in Kentucky is using music to serve his community


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: At a time when many classical music and other traditional arts organizations are facing major challenges, including dwindling audiences, a young conductor in Louisville, Kentucky, is expanding the playbook.

He's combining music-making with public service and orchestrating community in every corner of the state.

Jeffrey Brown traveled along for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Happy Top Park in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, for an appreciative local audience of several hundred, members of the Louisville Orchestra played George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

A short time later, mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile offered up a bit of what he called rhapsody in bluegrass. The connector here, in all senses of the word, Teddy Abrams, part-time pianist, full-time music director and conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, a man on a mission.

Teddy Abrams, Conductor, Louisville Orchestra: It's our responsibility to find the places where other parts of the population are comfortable, where we can be on their turf, we can be guests in their town or their community center or their school, whatever it might be, and forge that relationship from scratch.

But it's this human connection that people are drawn to. The music is a part of that, but it's human to human fundamentally, right? So it's our job…

Jeffrey Brown: But that's you now. I mean, that's what you…

Teddy Abrams: That's exactly right. I have got to do that. The orchestra has got to do that.

Jeffrey Brown: Teddy Abrams puts it personally and lives it personally. Many nights, you will find him conducting the standard repertoire in Louisville's Whitney Hall, a traditional performing art space.

At 36, he's already nearing his 10th year in the city, having arrived in 2014 at just 27, the youngest leader ever here, filled with energy and ideas about how to transform the orchestra. But you're just as likely to find him at a place like this, a Louisville church at a meeting of the Kentucky Refugees Ministry, this group mostly Congolese, trying to bridge gaps, including language, with music and dance.

It's just one of many efforts to bring the orchestra and the music into the community through such projects as a rap school, a Latin American music festival and an intro to instruments program for children.

Teddy Abrams: My job is to be a public servant in Louisville. I came here to…

Jeffrey Brown: You define it that way?

Teddy Abrams: One hundred percent. Yes, I have a civic role. You build community. You literally build community by using the power of this art form to convene people, to make them feel like they're living in that kind of communality. That's the power of what we do.

Jeffrey Brown: Abrams himself comes from California's Bay Area. He played piano and clarinet as a child, studied conducting starting at age 10, and was mentored by one of today's greats, Michael Tilson Thomas.

When he got the Louisville job, he went all in, moving and living here full time. That may sound routine, but it's not always the case in the classical music world, where globe-trotting conductors might spend just parts of the year in the cities where they lead orchestras.

Why did you choose to do so?

Teddy Abrams: I think it's necessary. You have to be here to meet people. It's not just about shaking hands with people after a concert. That's not enough.

It's the act of living in a place, of getting into the rhythm and flow and listening to people and spending time with them. It also sends a signal to my neighbors here in Louisville that I believe their city is a great city. It's a city where I can live myself. I'm telling them that I believe in this place.

Narrator: Louisville, Bourbon City.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a city that promotes its bourbon industry and its horses at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby.

But the Louisville Orchestra actually has its own place in music history.

Teddy Abrams: The vast majority of these are L.P.s released under the Louisville Orchestra's own label, because they had to create a label to handle the massive volume of music that they were recording.

Jeffrey Brown: In Abrams' study, he has shelves of recordings from the 1940s on, a period when his relatively small city orchestra, prompted by a music-loving mayor and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, punched way beyond its weight in commissioning, playing and recording new works, including from the likes of Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland.

Teddy Abrams: This is the box set that you would get from the Louisville Philharmonic Society. That was the old name. I love that they also put the seal of the city on it.

Jeffrey Brown: Abrams, himself a composer, including of a rap oratorio based on the life of Louisville-born Muhammad Ali, is now renewing the orchestra's commitment to new music through a program that brings composers to live and work here.

We watched a meeting with the latest group.

Teddy Abrams: So, your role would be both curatorial and artisanal?

Woman: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: In addition to writing music, each composer develops a community-based project.

Perhaps Abrams' most ambitious project to date, a two-season tour of the state, bringing the orchestra to some 50,000 people in 28 rural towns like Henderson, into Mammoth Cave National Park with a performance that included none other than Yo-Yo Ma and to the Happy Top Park concert in Beattyville.

Enjoying himself there, Republican State Senator Robert Stivers, president of the Kentucky Senate. He helped shepherd state funding to the Louisville Orchestra for this project.

State Sen. Robert Stivers (R-KY): You always hear of the rural-urban divide, and a lot of people won't go to the cities because they think it's beyond their navigation point. A lot of people won't come out of the cities, thinking, we're uncomfortable in the country.

What we have tried to do and I think what Teddy's trying to do and this group is trying to do is bridge those gaps.

Jeffrey Brown: Musicians feel it too.

The oldest, Meghan Casper, is a 12-year veteran of the orchestra.

Meghan Casper, Violist, Louisville Orchestra: You get out and you're in the world and you understand more fully, like, how it's not that people are lucky to come here and you play. It's that you are part of the stewardship of the community and of your art. And that is just as important as how well you play it.

Jeffrey Brown: Bassist Brian Thacker joined the orchestra three years ago.

Brian Thacker, Bassist, Louisville Orchestra: I have had neighbors who've never been to a concert, and they know Teddy. They know the work he's doing. There's an energy that is kind of infectious, and it's pretty exciting.

It kind of helps — it forces you to kind of recalibrate your whole perspective on what we're doing, in a good way.

Jeffrey Brown: None of this, of course, changes the very real-world pressures on orchestras and other arts organizations around the country. Abrams offers one model to take those on directly, one that can, he knows, come off his bordering on a cult of personality, saving classical music, even saving the world.

Teddy Abrams: I understand. Look, you're not going to solve issues of racial division and deep historical divides and demographic challenges. You're not going to just solve the urban-rural divide with a single orchestra concert.

That's not what we're talking about. But we all have to try. If Americans don't step up and try with whatever skills or whatever talents they have, then we're lost.

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, one concert under the moon and stars of the Kentucky mountains isn't a bad place to start.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Beattyville and Louisville, Kentucky.

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