When Esther Abrami started uploading videos of her violin performances on TikTok at the age of 19, musicians from the classical arena were outraged. In a world of black tailcoats and velvet-seated concert halls, sharing her performance on social media was criticised as “cheap” and “vulgar”.
“It’s a very old-fashioned industry,” Paris-based Abrami says, with a sigh. “But I don’t blame them, because I was doing something new and that was scary to them.”
Abrami was steadfast in her quest to make classical music accessible to a younger and more diverse audience.
And now, aged 26, the concert violinist has built a rapidly expanding fanbase, with 415,000 followers on TikTok, 300,000 on YouTube, 265,000 on Instagram, 150,000 on Facebook — and counting.
Esther has 415,000 followers on TikTok, 300,000 on YouTube, 265,000 on Instagram and 150,000 on Facebook (Photo: Florian Saez)
In 2021, she was selected by Julian Lloyd Webber to feature in Classic FM’s “30 under 30 to watch”, and she’s the first classical musician to win the Social Media Superstar category at the Global Awards.
“To be recognised is wonderful because it all came from believing in what I really wanted, despite being criticised for it,” she says. “At the beginning, it was difficult, and I felt really depressed.”
After all, Abrami was on a mission to create a classical community in which she herself fit in, and where she could share music her own way. “I didn’t agree with the way things were done and how non-inclusive it could be,” she says. “The type of audience that we’re always getting at concerts, and the fact that we don’t clap, and we don’t talk.”
She continues, “In classical music you come and you sit down, and the people play, bow and leave. It seems like you’re not there. And I think that’s a shame. What’s lacking is the connection with the performers.”
If musicians can’t see it, she says, it’s just because they’re so used to it, and they’ve been taught that way. “But it always felt really odd to me.”
She recalls attempting to introduce her pieces in student concerns and being told: ‘No, that’s not the way you do it. You just go on stage and play and you leave.’ “I was really frustrated by that.”
Because of this, Abrami enjoys playing a broader spectrum of music and concerts — and having a classical background allows her to turn her bow to any other styles of music. Among her favourites in the crossover genres is electronic and orchestral fusion.
“Yet most classical musicians stay within their own genre,” she says. “They are missing out on so much. We complain about classical music not being listened to, so why do we stay in our own bubble? Why don’t we go and mix with others? Doing collaborations with other artists and styles brings new audiences to classical music - it doesn’t mean that you’re spoiling it.”
When a music video she puts out on social media goes viral, that’s her goal because it encourages the listener to seek out more classical music.
We are here to discuss her new album Cinéma, which is not exactly crossover music, but a gorgeous collection of new arrangements of blockbuster hits including Naruto, Demon Slayer, The Witcher and The Hunger Games alongside French music (Amélie and Les Choristes).
Her promotional schedule has been so busy that she had to celebrate Rosh Hashanah by eating apple and honey over Zoom with her parents.
The album also features tracks from Life is Beautiful and The Diary of Anne Frank, in remembrance of her paternal great grandfather who died at Auschwitz. Then there are world premiere recordings by Oscar-winning composers; Anne Dudley wrote a new work especially for Abrami and Rachel Portman reworked her score for The Little Prince.
What sparked the idea for Cinéma was how film music could act as a bridge to a wider audience, in the same way as her use of social media platforms.
“I realised that a lot of people who would be closed to listening to classical or orchestral music could go to a film and fall in love with the soundtrack.
"And the soundtrack might be some Chopin or Mozart Requiem, but the fact that it is from a film that they like breaks down every kind of fear. I thought that’s a great way to bring what I love — classical violin — to a wider audience.”
As well as breaking the mould on Instagram, Abrami is keen to bolster the presence of women in classical music.
She ponders on the lack of famous female composers, a fact highlighted by an article in the New Statesman in July which stated that worldwide just 8.2 per cent of orchestral concerts feature works by women.
With a lack of female leaders in classical music, it’s understandable that Abrami had no mentor or role model to guide her through the early criticism, and why she is keen to help young women coming into the industry.
“I wasn’t protected by anyone,” she laments. “They were all in the same bubble. And I think that’s what was hard and why I felt really lonely during that time.”
In June 2022, she launched a podcast to shine a light on inspiring women from classical music to discuss their careers, the challenges that they face and their insights to help others, at the start of their careers.
“There are so many things I wish I knew before, that I learnt later on,” she explains. “We have this idea that if you’re not already playing a concerto at 14, you’ll never be able to make it. It’s not true. Don’t think you’re too old for it.
"Everybody has their own journey and sometimes you end up overtaking people who were ahead of you because of inequality. Things are changing.”
So vocal is she against that inequality that her last EP focused on women and one composer in particular, Angela Morley, who is regarded as the first openly transgender person to be recognised in the classical music world.
It is fitting, therefore, that Abrami was introduced to violin by an important female figure in her life: her grandmother, who had played professionally.
When the Germans invaded France, her grandmother and her mother escaped, leaving her great grandfather behind to avoid being reported by the neighbours (he survived a beating from police who mistakenly assumed he was dead).
When, at the end of the Second World War, they finally returned, everything had been stolen. Except, that is, her grandmother’s pet turtle, and her little violin — which Abrami still has to this day.
It wasn’t until Abrami was nine or ten, several years later, that she asked her parents for violin lessons. She recalls falling in love with violin in her first class.
“There was a real spark and I decided then that I wanted to become a violinist. I was so much more drawn to it than to any other instrument.” She would know; she also plays piano, accordion, guitar, harp and cello.
While her grandmother’s violin is worthless by comparison to the concert models she has acquired since, it has huge sentimental value and history. “The really amazing thing about these instruments is to think about their history and their life,” she says. “It stayed in our family. It’s part of my heritage.”
Esther Abrami’s album Cinéma is out now. She plays The Stoller Hall, Manchester, on October 11 and Bramall Music Building, Birmingham, on October 12