Britt commission turns out to be about homelessness

Teddy Abrams, music director of the Britt Orchestra, has been has been conducting orchestras since he was 10. Now in his early 30s, Abrams conducts the Britt Orchestra in Jacksonville, is music director of The Louisville Orchestra, and has appeared with prominent orchestras around the world. I met with Abrams and Mark Knippel, Britt’s director of artistic operations, as they were planning their coming season.

MK: There’s been quite an exciting development. The piece that we commissioned turned out to be much longer and more intense than we thought it would be.

TA: It’s a 50-minute giant song cycle, with back-up singers, and all kinds of interesting instruments. It’s a piece about homelessness: It’s a significant issue in Southern Oregon. Gabriel Kahane’s “emergency shelter intake form” is almost musical journalism; he spent time with the homeless population.

Part of the fun and the challenge of commissioning a piece is that you never know quite what it’s going to be, how it’s going to sound, and even the length. If the composer gets going, and it is 50 minutes long (because that’s what the composer is trying to say), that is the piece.

EH: What makes a great piece of music?

TA: A great piece of music could be any shape or form. A great piece of music is only great if the performance is great. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the piece, the performers, and the audience. There are also situations where the performance was great, and the piece was great, but the audience was not in the right state to hear it. If you put an intimate piece, that is performed beautifully, in the context of a hall that washes it out, a lot of people may just ignore it.

What makes music great is that the composer has a real voice and a vision for the music and the talent to translate that. Then you’re always going to get something interesting. It may not be the style that you love; it may not be your favorite composer, but something will come through. It will still speak.

EH: How do you connect with an orchestra?

TA: The big thing that you recognize, as a young conductor, is that all of the musicians have far more experience than you do. They’ve played this music far more than you have. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something important and special that you can bring to the table.

The orchestra is an organism. It may not have a brain center the way a human being does, but it’s a fully functioning living and breathing entity. You don’t want to push and prod that thing. If you do that in a way that doesn’t work, it just implodes. But at the same time, you want to guide it. And you learn to do that: you really understand that the orchestra brings all of its background and all of its experience to the table, vastly more than any conductor has.

You can’t figure that out the first day. The first day you feel that you’re overwhelmed by the machine. You actually have to leave that ego at the door, recognizing that there is no one interpretation: that you’re working with human beings in this big entity. You want to let them bring out their absolute top artistic performance: to help shape, and define it. You have to help them to — simply play their best.

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