Teddy Abrams, music director of the Britt Orchestra and a world renowned composer, pianist and clarinetist, will conduct The Britt Orchestra this season (July 25 to Aug. 11) in Jacksonville. This is the second of a two-part column. The first was published on May 26.
EH: How does music influence politics?
TA: It’s one of those questions of whether art imitates life or vice versa. You look at eras of American history and you see remarkable relationships between history and music, or politics and music — even beyond that, sociology and music. The defining characteristics of a lot of cultures are in fact their music making and their cultural output – those are binding elements.
Music is a way of conveying essential information, a way of defining identity. Especially in America, where our music comes from so many different places. We’ve often used it in ways to help us sort out our identities — and we see that over and over.
Jazz is one of the great examples of a music that is built on many different influences. But it’s this ultimately defining African-American music that could only exist (here), given the political circumstances of America. And that continues to this day.
Music is both political and apolitical. The protest songs of the Vietnam era probably had as much influence on people’s thinking about politics as anything. You had these bands and singer-songwriters with massive reach, and trust that they built, and people really listened to what they were saying, in a way that they may have ignored listening to other activists or speakers or politicians. Somebody could listen to a Bob Dylan song or Beatles song with a very specific message, but if they didn’t speak the language, they could still appreciate the music making.
EH: Are young people getting more involved in classical music?
TA: We’ve seen it change dramatically. Part of the challenge is that we’re trying to do two things at Britt. We’re trying to tell people (who already know something about orchestras) that this is an amazing all-star orchestra, and the programs are super innovative and really diverse. You’re going to find a spread of 400 years of music on any given season’s program. You’re going to hear world premiers.
On the other hand, we’re trying to tell any random person that’s never been to the orchestra that this is a beautiful experience. It doesn’t matter if you know one thing about the program. It matters that you come to Britt because you get one of the great assets of Southern Oregon: being on that hill, and listening to a great orchestra, and enjoying, not only the physical surroundings, but the community atmosphere which is really special. Those are two very different things. We have to find new audiences by talking to people in ways that they understand. Any family can understand that this is a beautiful evening. It’s a great way to bring your family together for something spectacular.
EH: How old were you when you heard your first orchestra?
TA: I was 9. I think I was really fortunate, because it was a total blank slate. It was an outdoor concert, just like Britt. It was in Stern Grove in San Francisco. I didn’t know what it was. I’d never seen the orchestra before. Nobody told me that you have to be really quiet or that you have to know about the composer. It was an all-Gershwin program. I had never even heard of Gershwin when I was 9. All I knew about was Mozart and Beethoven. I just loved it.