Musical Fire in the Rogue Valley

Southern Oregon music festival features three weeks of classical music new and old

by ALICE HARDESTY

The Rogue Valley is home to the Britt Music and Arts Festival, which takes place in July and August every summer. The Britt Festival Orchestra’s music director, Teddy Abrams, is hugely popular among music lovers here and in his home city of Louisville, where he directs the Louisville Orchestra. That affection is reciprocated, he assures us. “I immediately fell in love with Jacksonville, with the region, and with the orchestra from the first time I came here to conduct. That was seven years ago, the year before I started my first season as music director. I’ve been associated now with this festival for a good solid percentage of my life if you think about it.” Fortunately for Southern Oregon, Abrams has renewed his contract for four more years.

Young Teddy

While some of us might say that seven years is only an eye-blink, when you’re just 32 that’s a good percentage of your life. Abrams started his musical career early. He was improvising on the piano at age three, beginning lessons at five, and got interested in conducting after attending a San Francisco Symphony concert at age nine. He began studying conducting and musicianship with Michael Tilson Thomas at the age of twelve. At sixteen he started a bachelor of arts program at the San Francisco Conservatory for Music and went on to the Curtis Institute of Music and later to the Aspen Music Festival and School. At both of the latter institutions he was the youngest conducting student ever accepted, and he is currently the youngest conductor of a major orchestra in the U.S. By now he has conducted orchestras around the world, and he also performs frequently as a pianist and clarinetist. And, in his spare time, he composes!

Mission and challenges

I’m sure Teddy Abrams has been labeled “wunderkind” sometime along the way. But unlike many prodigies, his flame continues to burn brightly, and his creative energies are unstoppable, proof of which lies in the successful rejuvenation of the Louisville Orchestra and in the number and quality of the programs he has created for the Britt Festival Orchestra.

As music director of the Louisville Orchestra, Abrams has had a significant impact, earning him the title of “Louisville Orchestra’s Rock Star” by CBS commentator Martha Teichner. According to Abrams, the two orchestras had very different specific issues, “but the general mission was the same — to take institutions and grow them to their potential and to take risks, but to do that in a loving way. I think we’ve experimented with the program formats and styles of music and genres of music, and now we have got into a really special place.”

After his first visit to the Rogue Valley, Abrams recalls, “I felt like this was the kind of place where I wanted to come and work to create some kind of magical experience.” He inherited a fine orchestra of world-class musicians whose members were committed to coming to Southern Oregon every summer. But he felt that they were largely unknown outside the Rogue Valley, and decided to put them on the map.

Teddy Abrams conducting Louisville Orchestra. Photo by O'Neil Arnold.
Teddy Abrams conducting Louisville Orchestra. Photo by O’Neil Arnold.

Looking Beyond Oregon

When Abrams arrived and started calling musician managers to book soloists, he’d sometimes get answers like “The Britt festival? How exciting? Where in England is that?” Most of its audience remains Oregonians, Abrams said, with 75 percent being locals — almost an exact inverse of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s split, he said. “That’s been changing though,” as the festival has sought to elevate its regional, national and even international profiles — important for an isolated town (unlike small-town festivals in the much more densely populated East Coast) with only 2,400 residents. This year’s ticket orders show more zip codes from California metropolitan areas, Eugene, even Seattle.

One element in building that national profile has been cultivating commissions from nationally known composers, which Abrams called “part of our master plan to get conversations about us going on a national level.” One of Abrams’ biggest successes was the premier of New York composer Michael Gordon’s symphony Natural History, performed outdoors at Crater Lake National Park. It was commissioned for the Britt Festival Orchestra to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Parks System. In addition to the orchestra, the performers included a large choir, a group of percussionists, and a group of Native American drummers. The concert was a great success and eventually resulted in the 25-minute PBS documentary Symphony for Nature.

Another of Abrams’ creative brainstorms has been the two-year Composer-Conductor Fellowship, where prominent composers come to the Britt Festival, conduct one or more of the works on that season’s program under Abrams’ tutelage, then compose a symphony or concerto to be performed the following year. Baltimore composer Christopher Cerrone, winner of the prestigious Rome Prize, was last year’s guest conductor. This year he will conduct his concerto for percussion and orchestra, Meander, Spiral, and Explode. The piece features the dynamic Chicago ensemble, Third Coast Percussion. This year’s guest conductor is the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York composer, Caroline Shaw, who will then compose a work to be performed during the 2020 Festival. Both Fellows will take part in various educational and outreach programs during the season.

Abrams is proud of his Conductor-Composer program. He points out that back in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the famous composers were also conductors—Mozart, Mahler, and Mendelssohn, to name a few—but this is not the case in our time. A composer may have written a symphony, but in all likelihood has never publicly conducted it, or possibly even heard it performed. “You can write the greatest symphony and do it in your home and never have a person play it,” Abrams says. It’s almost the reverse for conductors. He points out that conductors may be well known, but there aren’t that many of them, especially younger ones. “Conducting requires opportunity,” he observes, “and opportunity requires equity and equitability,” which has been particularly problematic for women conductors up against the glass ceiling in music. But he believes that the tide is turning: “it’s a totally different playing field than just four or five years ago.” He is helping in the process of equitability, and he wants us to know that these are not beginning-level conductor/composers, Shaw being a Pulitzer prize winner and Cerrone a Pulitzer finalist. “The program is actually a hit,” he says. “We’ve got a long list of people who are clamoring to do it. It’s pretty cool.”

One casualty of Britt’s national-star strategy has been music by Oregon composers

In Abrams’s six years as music director, the festival has commissioned only a single work by a composer who lives in Oregon—Kenji Bunch’s 2017 Song of Sasquatch—and no Oregonians have benefited from the opportunities offered by his Conductor-Composer program. When Abrams sought new music about Oregon’s most iconic natural feature, he chose a well-known, longtime urban New Yorker who’d never even seen Crater Lake. The Florida-born Gordon did conscientiously do his research, including several visits, and used melodies from native Klamath tribes, plus local percussionists and choristers. Last year’s festival featured a new work by Gabriel Kahane, who’s doing a residency with the Oregon Symphony, which co-commissioned and premiered his emergency intake shelter form just before Britt performed it. Abrams conceded that the LA-born, Brooklyn-based Kahane isn’t exactly an Oregon composer either, but maintained that “there’s a benefit from bringing folks in and asking them to write music about what makes this place special. We’re trying to get the best of both worlds.”

Though he hadn’t heard of Oregon-based Cascadia Composers, the largest chapter in the National Association of Composers USA, Abrams was aware of NACUSA’s Southern Oregon chapter—but the festival hasn’t yet engaged any of its composers. He said the festival does intend to include more music by Oregonians at Britt.

Teddy Abrams leads the Britt Festival Orchestra.

Getting music to kids

In both Louisville and the Rogue Valley Teddy Abrams has made a commitment to bringing music to children. He has “adopted” a number of schools in Louisville and visits them many times during the year. He coaches high school bands and orchestras, and even teaches little kids how to conduct. He makes a trip to Southern Oregon a couple of times before the season starts, visiting all the high schools and working with their music programs. During the season here he gives free education classes in the mornings, and the orchestra performs free concerts as part of the BrittKids Koncerts program. Some 300 to 400 children and their parents have attended these interactive concerts. 

Another of Abrams’ innovations is the addition of “Teddy’s Discovery Tuesdays,” a new series which provides an opportunity for experimentation and community programming. On July 23, Family Night features composer/conductor Caroline Shaw narrating one of her compositions titled The Mountain That Loved a Bird and actor Bruce Campbell narrating Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Community Night on Tuesday, July 30 will be an informal performance of Terry Riley’s minimalist composition In C, in which the Britt Orchestra will be joined by local musicians to play the work’s 53 short musical phrases. Tuesday August 6 will be Pops Night with a program of all Gershwin tunes featuring singer Morgan James.

A balance of old and new

Abrams has made a point of introducing new music to Britt audiences, but he always tries to make a creative balance between old and new rather than simply contrasting them. He often gives a unifying theme for his concerts, as in The Rising Seas on August 4, which pairs Debussy’s La Mer with Become Ocean by John Luther Adams. His pre-concert lectures may elaborate on these connections. “We definitely pushed limits and experimented, and I think we learned a lot through that process, which is how our program has come together with this real variety. And I love seeing a program where an audience can be transported from music that is 300 years old to music that was just commissioned and have it be a seamless experience.”

To see more about Abrams’ experiments with new music and new approaches to concert presentation, check out the video series, “Music Makes a City Now,” produced by Owsley Brown Presents: https://www.youtube.com/user/musicmakesacitynow—especially episode #5, “Big Fiddle.”

Appreciation of new music—even by traditional concert-goers—seems to have increased in recent years. “I think these days the whole artistic community has turned a big corner,” Abrams says—it just took a while to happen. He explains the paradigm shift this way: “There was a big gulf between what audiences expected from a concert and what the composers were writing, and that lasted for much of the 20th Century. It doesn’t mean that you can place a value judgement on the music, but it definitely didn’t help those relationships improve. So my generation inherited a really great challenge. But wait a minute! The music world has really shifted! A lot of composers writing today are passionate about their audiences wanting to connect with their music.” This passion often translates into deep connections between contemporary composers and their audiences.

Abrams believes that the turning point for the Britt Orchestra was the Crater Lake commission. While some people may already have put “just one foot in the water” of contemporary music, this was a powerful, visceral, meaningful piece of music that had everything to do with its setting and its people. “It was written for them. It wasn’t something we had copied and pasted. We created it for those audiences at Crater Lake and then at Britt, and I think it transformed the way people understood what music can be today.”

Mixing genres

Teddy Abrams and friends have a lot of fun combining different genres. Some of that interest is evident in his new Tuesday series at Britt, where the programs include narration (Shaw and Campbell), pop classics (Gershwin), and improvisation (Riley). On that point, he says, “I find particularly special the nexus between different genres and different styles of music, and for the first time in my lifetime, I think those genres have walls that are a lot more porous. I think it’s a very positive thing for the musical world because it allows us to recognize talent in many forms. There may be a wonderful jazz musician, or a rock artist, or a folk artist, even a rapper, or any kind of musician that might not come from the same background that we do, but they have something musical that is very special. And those are the kinds of people you want to work with.”

2019 program

It’s really rough trying to decide which concerts to attend, so maybe you should just plan on going to all nine over the three-week period. For those from out of the area, there are accommodations in Jacksonville, Medford, and Ashland, and Grants Pass is not far. See the Visitor’s Guide in the Britt website for details. http://www.brittfest.org.

Mercifully, so far this summer has spared audiences the biggest challenge of last year’s festival: wildfire-driven smoke that forced relocation of several concerts from its iconic amphitheater to North Medford High School’s auditorium. 

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” this week, said Abrams, who’d just returned from a hike. (We spoke before the Canyonville Fire sent unhealthy levels of smoke across Southern Oregon. )
“It’s not even hot. We want to be prepared, so we do have the North Medford backup plan including a shadow set of chairs and music stands in case we have to move. We have started long range discussions about what does it look like” if the effects of human-caused climate change continue to disrupt conditions. And he urged political leaders to take action to “preserve the beauty and sustainability” that brings so many listeners to Southern Oregon. 

The highlights of this year’s season include solo concertos by three dynamic young artists — violinist Augustin Hadelich, cellist Oliver Herbert, and pianist George Li, none of them over 35, yet all of them internationally renowned. The season will open on July 26 with Cerrone leading the Third Coast Percussion ensemble Meander, Spiral, Explode, preceded by Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute and followed by Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. On July 28, Oliver Herbert will perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto preceded by Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony #6.  The August 4 concert features Debussy’s Symphonic Sketches—La Mer and Adams’s Become Ocean. Augustin Hadelich will play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto on August 9, on a program with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Lili Boulanger’s D’un Matin de Printemps and Anna Clyne’s Abstractions.

The final concert, on August 11, will be another Abrams tour de force: a new score for Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Battleship Potemkin. The film will be projected on a huge screen behind the orchestra while Abrams syncs the music with the action. The score was arranged by Britt Orchestra bassist Nathan Farrington and Sebastian Chang, Britt’s first Composer-Conducting Fellow. It is based on some of the greatest music of the last 300 years. “Beethoven, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Janacek, Bach,” Abrams intones, “just the greatest stuff, all strung together! It’s really cool, I gotta say.” This will be only the second time it has been performed. “We tried it out in Louisville and I wanted to do it again. It’s so different than anything you’re going to find out there. I think it’s going to become a big hit and a lot of orchestras are going to present it.”

Battleship Potemkin may indeed become a big hit, because most everything Teddy Abrams sets his mind to becomes a big hit. And he’s just getting started.

Cellist Oliver Herbert joins the Britt Orchestra July 28.

Alice Hardesty is a writer and music enthusiast living in Ashland. Her most recent book, Walking with Bacho, Four Seasons in Portland, is published by Bacho Press. Additional reporting by Brett Campbell.

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