Louisville Orchestra’s Teddy Abrams on Leonard Bernstein’s pan-Judaism

Leonard Bernstein (photo by Jack Mitchell)

Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams

By Andrew Adler
Community Editor

The Louisville Orchestra’s Saturday, March 11 “Journeys of Faith” concert – focusing on repertoire by Jewish and Black composers – features works that will be ciphers to most listeners.

Consider, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Age of Anxiety”). Written in 1948-49, when he was barely 30 and the tentacles of World War II were only just beginning to recede, it was a decidedly modern take on an ageless conceit: humans grappling with identity, purpose and above all, doubt.

Bernstein had devoured W.H. Auden’s 1947 book-length poem, which tells of three men and a woman gathering to drink in a New York City Bar as the wear rages abroad. Bernstein structured the symphony as a six-part work, and crucially, partners the orchestra with a solo piano that functions as a kind of independent personality. It’s not a concerto in the usual sense, but more akin to the what’s called a “concertante,” in which the piano has more of an interior expressive role.

“I think of the piano in this work (to be played by guest pianist Sebastian Chang on Saturday) almost as a character in an opera,” Abrams explains, “where you wouldn’t expect the character to be singing all the time…but where you expect to have interfacing with the overall plotted narrative.” The solo piano’s contributions “come in and out of the (orchestral) textures – they offer character insights and perspective, but they don’t dominate.”

Jewish spiritualism defined much of Bernstein’s other two symphonies: the First (titled “Jeremiah”) and the Third (“Kaddish,” which Abrams and the LO performed on its March 4 program).

“Ultimately, you want to elevate people from the traditional setting of hearing a symphony,” Abrams believes, “and have them undergo a spiritual transformation. It’s funny, because he wasn’t overtly religious in his daily life, but was both spiritually and culturally. I think he was constantly working out that relationship to his musical practice in pieces like this.”

Abrams boasts his own prominent Jewish cultural connections. He studied conducting under San Francisco Symphony Orchestra music director Michael Tilson Thomas, himself a Bernstein protégé. “Bernstein and MTT shared the same desire that I have: to make music that connects with a far broader audience than the normal lens of classical music. That’s where Bernstein transcended the form of orchestral conductor or classical composer.”

Now 35, Abrams says that performing music like Bernstein’s “is spiritual in and of itself, and aligns with my own Jewish background, which is very much cultural – I’m a little more of a Larry David Jew than I am, you know, like a ‘formidable’ figure.”

Indeed, “we’re coming from our own perspective as spiritual people, and from what that means ancestrally,” Abrams says. “My dad just uncovered these photos of my great great grandfather, who was from the generation that immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine. There are photos of him playing the violin and photos of him and his son posing with their violins, so music was a big part of the family,” in a sense, “to escape from the entertainment world.

“That’s very much what happened with Bernstein,” Abrams says. “He found a way into our cultural heritage by practicing that art form, and by feeling like it tethers us to a deeper human history.”

Music Director Teddy Abrams will conduct The Louisville Orchestra Saturday, March 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall. The program is part of the orchestra’s “Journeys of Faith” series of concerts highlighting works by Jewish and Black composers, sponsored by the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.

Repertoire includes Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Age of Anxiety”) with pianist Sebastian Chang, Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson’s “To Awaken the Sleeper” (with Jecorey Arthur narrating texts by James Baldwin), and the premiere of Tyler Taylor’s “Revisions,” an LO Creators Corps commission.

Tickets are $28-$88. Call 502-587-8681, or email Louisville Orchestra Tickets

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