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DSO's new assistant conductor brings poise, musicianship and youth to the job

Teddy Abrams
Detroit Free Press

By Mark Stryker

Teddy Abrams, the newly appointed assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was 9 when he heard his first symphony concert.

It was a free outdoor performance by the San Francisco Symphony playing Gershwin, and the experience left him so gobsmacked that the next day he wrote the orchestra's music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, a six-page letter. Already proficient on clarinet and piano, Abrams told Tilson Thomas that he wanted to be a conductor and asked for advice and lessons.

"I just decided I wanted to be the person who helped make all of the music possible," says Abrams, now 24 but still precocious. "Later I formed a more precise idea of what it is that brought me to this. I loved the feeling of trying to get people to play their best. A conductor is not the musical dictator. You're the person who tries to get people to give their all. I like the definition of a conductor as one who conducts energy and in that way draws out people's best.

"The other thing is that I love to communicate and introduce music to our community and bring it to people who might not have heard it before or to those that have, but in a new way."

As the assistant to DSO music director Leonard Slatkin, Abrams will lead children's and educational concerts, pops concerts and classical programs as part of the neighborhood series. He'll also be integrated into the DSO's artistic brain trust, contributing programming ideas for chamber music and contemporary music initiatives.

Slatkin expects Abrams to have a presence in the community too, advocating for the orchestra and communicating with audiences, board members and donors. Slatkin said several candidates showed the necessary musical skills during auditions, but Abrams trumped everyone in his formal interview.

"He exhibited great poise and the kind of thinking we need here," Slatkin says. "Someone who speaks on my behalf when I'm not here and understands the need to get people on board. And it has to go across political lines. We don't talk about this much, but it's easy to say something that can get you in trouble with donors or contributors, and he didn't show that at all. He knew how to deflect tough questions."

Abrams, who grew up in the San Francisco area and currently lives in Budapest, Hungary, where he's in his first season as resident conductor of the MAV Symphony Orchestra, will be relocating to Detroit.

A staff job with a major orchestra is typically a key element of a young conductor's résumé and an opportunity to soak up big-league experience. Slatkin's first job, for example, was as assistant to Walter Susskind at the St. Louis Symphony in 1968.

Abrams' hiring marks a restructuring of the DSO's conducting staff. Former resident conductor Thomas Wilkins was 44 when he began his nine-year tenure in 2000 and was far more experienced than Abrams. Slatkin has always believed in mentoring promising young conductors. Current conducting assistant, veteran Charles Greenwell, will stay involved in outreach and community activities like pre-concert talks.

"I'm absolutely thrilled about this position," Abrams says. "The Detroit Symphony is incredible, and Leonard is great on many levels, and he's made it clear he's available to me as a resource."

Abrams has more experience than most his age. Beyond his post in Budapest, for three seasons he was the Conducting Fellow of the New World Symphony, the Miami-based orchestra for young professionals spearheaded by Tilson Thomas. He also remains active as a clarinetist, pianist and composer.

His conducting teachers included Otto-Werner Mueller at the Curtis Institute of Music, and David Zinman, but his primary mentor is Tilson Thomas, who after receiving the letter from the 9-year-old wrote back with sage advice.

He told him that when he was Abrams' age he was listening to 20th-Century masters Prokofiev, Bartok and Stravinsky (particularly the latter's "Petrushka") and that maybe Abrams would like them, too. He also said that when playing in an orchestra listen closely to what all the sections are playing and take note of everything the conductor says, not just comments directed at you or your section.

Not long after, Tilson Thomas was rehearsing Beethoven's Third Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. At one point he stopped to ask whether anyone knew why near the beginning Beethoven obsessively repeats a G natural in the violins -- the device creates a delicious harmonic tension against the melody.

"Suddenly this little hand was raised in the clarinet section," Tilson Thomas remembered.

"I think it expresses longing," answered Abrams. Tilson Thomas laughed at the memory of such a sophisticated (and accurate) response from someone so young: "His perception, his general understanding has always been very special, very deep and very intuitive."