Heavy rain hits during a screening of the Orchestra's Stravinsky concert 

at the Sauerbeck Family Drive-In on Oct. 29, 2020.

No More Funeral Marches: 

How an Orchestra Conductor 

is Using Music to Heal His City

In a normal winter season, the Louisville Orchestra would be thriving. Its musicians would be playing The Nutcracker to sold-out crowds of thousands inside the lush, wooden-walled Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. They would bow at every standing ovation.

This season, their sound bounces off bourbon bottles as they play a virtual concert inside Old Forester’s Paristown Hall, a venue for indie acts named after a local alcohol brand. There are no audience members in the building. A few days later, their show streams for free at a drive-in theatre more than 20 miles away.

Cellist Lindy Tsai rehearses at Old Forester's Paristown Hall on Nov. 7, 2020.

After the grand jury trial surrounding Breonna Taylor’s death, Louisville became “the epicenter of journalism,” as Louisville Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams put it. Since then, he and the Orchestra have been adapting their concert season to make the traditionally white space of classical music more inclusive, safe, and accessible in the wake of racial injustice and the pandemic.

Teddy Abrams, in silhouette, conducts the Louisville Orchestra during a dress rehearsal inside Old Forester’s Paristown Hall on Oct. 24, 2020.

Teddy Abrams is not a typical conductor. At 33, he’s the youngest conductor of any major orchestra in the United States. He’s energetic and open and is no stranger to media coverage, which often refers to him as a “rock star” or “wunderkind.” On Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter combined, he has more than 154,000 fans. When Teddy introduces himself in concerts or in season trailers, he always calls himself the conductor of “your Louisville Orchestra,” pronouncing the city’s name with the cadence of a native — Loo-uh-vol. (It’s a shibboleth; Loo-ee-vill is for outsiders.) He hails from the Bay Area originally, but he’s been with the Louisville Orchestra since 2014.

Abrams is also an ardent political activist who frequently decries white privilege through his social media. Earlier this year, he wrote a song for the Black Lives Matter movement called “You Can’t Stop the Revolution.” This season, he’s diversified the Orchestra’s repertoire from a solely traditional European selection to include more American works, especially those by Black composers. His guests have included bluegrass player Sam Bush and brother-and-sister soul singers Jason Clayborn and Daria Raymore. He dedicated the season’s first concert to Breonna Taylor.

To make his work more accessible to the public, Abrams also started a series of “comfort concerts” — free, one-on-one piano concerts on Zoom for fans who sign up for ten-minute time slots. He did more than 60 in the series’s first week alone. On some days, he’s done 16 private concerts in four hours.

Two staff members rehearse camera calls on Oct. 24, 2020.

“My inclination with music is to use it, not just to play it,” he said. “In a moment like this, when you're talking about mental health and real anxiety, the personal connection is what's really important.”

When the series was most active in late September, Abrams played for dozens of fans of all ages from all around Louisville — and even as far away as Utah and California.

“It's nice to draw people into Louisville when they don't have a good picture of it right now,” he said.

The Orchestra has also moved their work online in a program they call the LOVE Series — the Louisville Orchestra Virtual Edition. The entire season is available for $99, although several of the concerts and mini-concerts are free. In the trailer for the LOVE series, Abrams says, “This is the year that we want our orchestra to be there for all of you, our fellow citizens, our neighbors.”

Louisville Orchestra music librarian Chris Skyles wipes down a Plexiglas divider after a dress rehearsal of Stravinsky works on Oct. 24, 2020.

Before a dress rehearsal at Paristown Hall, all staff members and musicians have to provide evidence of a recent negative COVID test, and they get temperature-checked when they walk in the door. A few fans circulate the air. Musicians sit six feet apart. Almost all of them wear masks, except for woodwind and brass players, the latter of whom use bell covers to prevent spit particles from leaving their instruments. After each rehearsal, a few staff members, including music librarian Chris Skyles, wipe down plexiglass dividers on the stage.

Assistant Concertmaster Julia Noone, left, rehearses with the Louisville Orchestra on Nov. 7, 2020.

Yet even with precautions in place, the virus had already started to throw a wrench into the works on Oct. 24. Before the Orchestra’s dress rehearsal that afternoon, a trombonist had called out sick. A cellist (who was not in the building) was running a fever higher than 100 degrees.

Steve Sauerbeck walks into the projection booth at the Sauerbeck Family Drive-In on Oct. 29, 2020. 

Behind him, Teddy Abrams conducts the Louisville Orchestra on a pre-recorded streaming performance.

Days later, when the concert played at the Sauerbeck Family Drive-In in La Grange, there was no sign that anything had disrupted the Orchestra’s performance, although there were some issues with the weather that night. The rain poured so heavily that a drive-in staff member had to jumpstart three stalled engines.

A Drive-In employee helps a music student at the University of Louisville fix her car on Oct. 29, 2020.

“Stravinsky was the ultimate adapting composer,” Abrams said over the Sauerbeck’s radio channel, competing with the fat, cold drops hitting the windshields of 40 or so cars that gathered that evening. “He always found a way to grow and change and figure out how to be on the very forefront of whatever era, whatever challenges, he would have to face.”

Carloads of patrons gather beneath the projection screen at the Sauerbeck Family Drive-In on Nov. 12, 2020.

The results of the drive-ins have also been mixed; attendance has dropped with the temperature. More than 200 carloads showed up to the first show on Oct. 8, but only about 40 showed up to the next one — then 25, then 13.

The projection booth at Sauerbeck Family Drive-In illuminates the  heavy rain on Oct. 29, 2020.

On Dec. 1, Teddy was again on the screen, telling the audience, “We’ve been adapting and learning and growing in this period of musical and artistic challenges, but music is one of those things that gives us our deepest sense of hope and the possibilities of the future.”

The inside of the projection booth at the Sauerbeck Family Drive-In on Oct. 29, 2020.

Teddy doesn’t go to the drive-ins. He might in the spring, if the turnout improves. Before the last concert of the year, “American Soul,” publicity director Michelle Winters told the News Service that Abrams had received the attendance reports from previous drive-ins with a terse, polite smile. He was hoping for better results, but he doesn’t know what to expect next.

One thing he does know, though, is that he doesn’t want to play any more funeral marches. People in Louisville, he said, have already heard enough of those.

The projection booth on Dec. 1, 2020.

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