Teddy Abrams attempts to channel Lenny Bernstein in New World’s “American Journey”

By Lawrence Budmen

Teddy Abrams conducted the New World Symphony in "Am American Musical Journey" Saturday night.

Teddy Abrams conducted the New World Symphony in “An American Musical Journey” Saturday night.

Teddy Abrams is a multitasking bundle of musical energy. The current music director of the Louisville Orchestra and former New World Symphony conducting fellow returned to the podium at Miami Beach’s New World Center on Saturday night for a program of Americana that also displayed his talents as keyboard player, clarinetist and composer.

For two seasons Abrams headed Miami’s now- defunct Garden Music Festival, presenting programs that mixed works from the classical canon with pop and indigenous music. Abrams’ tripartite “American Musical Journey” program continued that format. Like the New World’s Composer Portrait series, the three-hour concert utilized all of the hall’s auxiliary balcony stages and multimedia capacities.

Abrams bookended the opening segment devoted to the influence of folk music with classic scores by Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. The ensemble’s whipcrack articulation and Abrams’ brisk pacing took “Buckaroo Holiday”  from Copland’s Rodeo into high gear. Two movements from Ives’ Three Places in New England showcased the young players’ versatility and flexibility. Abrams’ unbridled reading of “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut” emerged sharp-edged and bereft of artificial gloss. The orchestra brought just the right rawness of timbre to Ives’ collage of circus band marches, Revolutionary War tunes and even The Star Spangled Banner. Yet they were able to turn on a dime and sensitively capture the misty ambience of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” in evocative instrumental colors.

Between the orchestral pieces, Brittany Haas and Jordan Tice offered a set of songs and fiddle tunes that would be at home on a Prairie Home Companion broadcast. Their close harmony (with guitar accompaniment) on the Delmore Brothers’ “Mississippi Shore” was a fine example of American folk pop, sans commercial gloss. Joined by two string players, Haas (alternating on banjo and fiddle) offered a virtuosic demonstration of authentic bluegrass.

Composer and bass player Edgar Meyer is a musical zelig, equally at home as a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, in Yo Yo Ma’s crossover projects, or at country music recording sessions in Nashville. His Concert Duo for violin and bass combines all of those artistic paths. In the first movement, violinist Ludek Wojtkowski turned idiomatic country fiddler and bassist Drew Banzhaf was nothing short of superb in Meyers’ impossibly fast writing in the instrument’s high range. Both players also brought pathos to the more quiet and austere sections of Meyers’ lovely score.

Jazz, perhaps America’s original art form, occupied the program’s second part. Suggesting its roots in the dark history of slavery, Catherine Russell sang the spiritual “Witness” with fervor to a lively beat in Michael Linville’s piano accompaniment. Russell channeled the bold jazz artistry and scat singing of such icons as Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson in Abrams’ swinging arrangement of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Feelin’ Good.”

The nimble touch of pianist John Wilson captured the fusion of ragtime and the dance hall in the Scott Joplin-Arthur Marshall collaboration Swipsey Cakewalk. The young Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island (1964) found Abrams playing both an electric keyboard and a Yamaha, at one point both at the same time. Ansel Norris’ trumpet appropriately evoked the wild horn playing of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie while Kelton Koch’s trombone sound was both mellow and rounded. With Daniel Morris afire on drums and Kevin Gobetz’s bass at full play, this classic of modern jazz really caught fire.

Abrams added strings to his big band version of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” With three trumpets and four trombones blaring at peak power, Abrams’ own piano riffs and hints of stride updated the classic Benny Goodman version. Morris’s improvisation on tap set was a stunning solo moment.

Goodman was the soloist in the premiere of  Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs on one of Bernstein’s classic Omnibus television programs in 1955. New World clarinetist Zach Manzi showed he had the agility and affinity for the idiom in his heated turn in the work’s final section. Five trumpets made a joyous noise in Bernstein’s jazzed up Gabrieli introduction and the three saxophones had a field day with the mini fugue.

The final section of the program was devoted to the influences of rock and techno pop. Here Abrams’ vision seemed much more limited. Three of the four works offered, in one way or another, were steeped in musical minimalism. Is this the only fashionable style of classical composers responding to popular culture?

In his Lollapalooza, John Adams turns repetitive fragments into pulsating patterns that entrance the ear. The score is a brilliant workout for the full orchestra, including a busy enlarged percussion group, and it was right up Abrams’ musical alley.

Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint (1984) found clarinetists Ran Kampel, Daniel Parretta and Manzi stationed on balconies to each side of the stage and on one side of the audience with Abrams tooting his clarinet from center stage. This score captures Reich at his best and transfixes the listener with its ingeniously contrasted repetitions. The antiphonal effect was both eye- and ear-catching and the expertly coordinated performance engendered plenty of excitement.

Mason Bates’ mix of electronics and full orchestra packed a wallop in “Warehouse Medicine” from The B-Sides. There is a sense of the ominous behind Bates’ driving rhythms in his portrait of the birth of techno pop at parties in the deserted warehouses of 1980′s Detroit. Abrams and the orchestra gave this hard thrusting essay their all.

Abrams’ own Overture in Sonata Form only passingly acknowledges rock. This smoothly crafted crowd pleaser traverses mid-twentieth century Americana and the Hollywood sound of John Williams in a celebratory manner.

Abrams displayed boundless energy and enthusiasm throughout the long evening. He appears to be New World artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas’ most prized podium protégé, so much so that Tilson Thomas is guest conducting the Louisville Orchestra this season. Abrams will doubtless be returning and it will be interesting to see the scope of his repertoire and interpretive talents evolve.

The New World Symphony season continues with Bernard Labadie conducting Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 and arias by Handel and Mozart with soprano soloist Lydia Teuscher 8 p.m. November 12 and 2 p.m. November 13. nws.edu; 305-673-3331.

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Sun Oct 30, 2016
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