On Teddy’s Hill: New Breezes Stir The Britt Festival

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Teddy Abrams (Robert Frost)
Teddy Abrams, in his second year as music director of Oregon’s Britt Festiival, is lighting it up. (Robert Frost)
By Richard S. Ginell

JACKSONVILLE, Ore. – Outside its home field in southern Oregon, the long-running Britt Festival has registered barely a blip on the cultural radar for decades. Even Teddy Abrams, the Britt’s energetic, multi-talented 28-year-old music director, had never heard of the festival when he was recommended for the job. But Abrams aims to change all that – and judging from his bold, inventive programming in his second season, as well as the quality and versatility of the orchestra, look out!

Britt Festival's outdoor setting (Josh Morell)
The Britt Festival resounds in bucolic hills of an Oregon Gold Rush town. (Josh Morell)

Founded back in 1963, the Britt takes place in the small, bucolic Gold Rush town of Jacksonville (est. pop. 2,806), five miles west of Medford, on a hillside on the former estate of (naturally) Peter Britt. It started as a classical-only festival, but with the construction of a handsome, wood-lined outdoor shell in 1978 and the introduction of amplification, it began to attract major pop, rock, jazz, country, and folk acts as well.

The classical portion lasts for three weeks in August, sandwiched by the other genres. The festival has its own dedicated orchestra – not like, say, Tanglewood or Hollywood Bowl, which are summer homes for orchestras with winter seasons, but with a core of about 80 regulars and extra musicians hired on a yearly basis.

Teddy Abrams (Josh Morrell)
Abrams’ second season at the Britt Festival is an adventurous Full Teddy. (Josh Morrell)

While Abrams’ first season contained a sprinkling of new ideas in the context of a more-or-less traditional Britt format, his second has exploded into what you might call a Full Teddy, reaching into repertoire that you rarely encounter in summer festivals or perhaps almost anywhere else. He has clearly picked up his yen for adventurous programming from his mentor, Michael Tilson Thomas, and he is taking innovation to new places, both at the Britt and as the current music director of the Louisville Orchestra. He doesn’t hesitate to exploit his prodigious versatility as a conductor, composer, pianist, and clarinetist, nor does he shy away from communicating his enthusiasm verbally to the audience or by means of promotional tchotchkes like the teddy bears on sale at the souvenir stands.

Friday night’s program (Aug. 7) was built on a solid core of MTT Americana, with Ives, Antheil, and Copland as the classical anchors. Abrams really relishes the chaotic strain in Ives; the madcap collisions of “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut” from Three Places in New England burst with vitality and zest, and Abrams didn’t smooth away the raw edges of Ives’ brief Ragtime Dance No. 3. Rather than the usual silent downbeat, Abrams shouted “A one-two-three, go!” to launch Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony (in the shortened revised version), pounding out the stride piano part himself with swagger and swing and capturing the antic spirit of the piece more vividly than just about anyone. Copland’s Billy the Kid suite also emerged rhythmically solid.

O’Donovan and Kittel run through Teddy Abrams' 'Questions.' (Ginell)
O’Donovan and Kittel run through Teddy Abrams’ ‘Questions.’ (Ginell)

Midway through the evening Abrams departed from the MTT model into something of his own, a collaboration with the cool, pure voice of folksinger/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan and violinist/fiddler Jeremy Kittel in a piece called Bull Frogs Croon, a continuous 10-minute-plus song cycle based on texts by Oregon’s poet laureate Peter Sears that turned out to be an evocative, dynamically-shifting thing grounded in folk-rock. They also unveiled a new song by Abrams called “Questions,” a lovely hybrid of folk-rock and a flowing orchestral backing that often twinkled like stars in the night. The most notable thing about these pieces – first performances, both – is that the orchestrations were intricate mechanisms, not the usual slopped-on whole notes that accompany most non-classical acts in a symphony orchestra context. Alas, the lyrics didn’t come through clearly over the loudspeakers due to muddy balance.

There was more polystylistic adventure the following evening (Aug. 8), when Abrams reunited with two old chums from the Curtis Institute, bassoonist/violinist Harrison Hollingsworth and clarinetist Johnny Teyssier. Together they form the Sixth Floor Trio – so named because they lived on the sixth floor at Curtis – a peripatetic, occasional band of renegades who use their rigorous Curtis training to play unusual music definitely outside the curriculum.

The sixth floor trio performs Abrams' concerto
Abrams’ triple concerto called ‘Rock’ lurched from boogie to heavy metal. (Ginell)

With sometime Sixth Floor drummer Gabriel Globus-Hoenich and the full orchestra joining in, the trio plunged into an Abrams triple concerto called Rock that lurched from boogie to gospel to Dixieland to heavy metal and who-knows-how-many other things, a joyously whooping look back at American music from the vantage point of the 21st century. They did a klezmer medley, with Abrams going gonzo on clarinet, after which he switched to country boogie piano on a reel for clarinet, violin, and cajon box drum. They polished off the set with the old Benny Goodman rouser “Sing, Sing, Sing/Christopher Columbus”, during which Globus-Hoenich kept the beat hot, heavy, and swinging.

Young Berlioz (Émile Signol )
Young Berlioz (Émile Signol )

On classical ground, Abrams revived a somewhat neglected American masterwork, Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, building the climaxes astutely with a well-played fugue in the center. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was the only piece that could be called standard fare, yet even here Abrams had something new up his sleeve, having some kids on the rear lawn simulate rain and wind effects during the thunder rolls from the timpani in the third movement and afterwards (not really needed, but amusing). Abrams’s Fantastique was clearly a young man’s interpretation – and why not? Berlioz was 27 when he completed it, a year younger than Abrams – full of swaying and jumping rhythm, going for the gusto whenever possible, and very well played by mostly-young musicians who probably do the piece with their home orchestras all the time.

Sunday night’s concert (Aug. 9) was entirely devoted to the Broadway scores of MTT’s mentor Leonard Bernstein – whom Abrams described as his musical “grandfather” – with singer Morgan James moving comfortably among and between opera, Broadway, and cabaret styles. And it wasn’t just Lenny’s Greatest Hits, for Abrams brought out rare material like the “Conquering New York” interlude from Wonderful Town (with its swipes from Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs), a jazzy outtake from On The Town (“Ain’t Got No Tears Left”), and two little-known songs from Peter Pan.

The audience (roughly 80% local) cheered wildly for all of this innovation and eclecticism, even the orneriest Ives concoctions. The amplified sound was dry, sometimes not properly balanced, yet acceptable – I’ve heard much worse at outdoor classical concerts – and best when seated up front on the Astroturf lawn. If Abrams can keep up the flow of ideas and continue his demolition of the boundaries between categories while maintaining the most vital qualities from each genre, this festival will become a hot ticket, and deservedly so.

And it’s not over yet; the final weekend of the classical portion of the Britt Festival launches Friday, Aug. 14 with Mason Bates’ Mothership (with the composer present on electronica), followed by more Barber – the Violin Concerto with James Ehnes – and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. The closing night, Aug. 15, is given over to the French – Debussy’s Jeux, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, with Guillaume Connesson’s “Aleph” from Cosmic Trilogy as a starter. For tickets, go here.

For details and ticket information, click here.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.