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Wang, Abrams and Louisville Orchestra grab a gold Gramophone

By Bill Doolittle

Wang, Abrams and Louisville Orchestra grab a gold Gramophone

Pianist Yuja Wang, composer/conductor Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra captured a GRAMMY Award for “Best Classical Solo” at the 66th GRAMMY Awards in Los Angeles in February. The winning work, from Wang’s album “The American Project,” is a new Piano Concerto composed by Abrams and performed by Wang – two friends from college making their way to stardom.

Under Abrams’ baton, and with Wang at the piano, the orchestra premiered the Piano Concerto in a Louisville Orchestra Coffee Concert on Jan. 7, 2022. The next night, Deutsche Grammophon – the important European classical label – recorded Yang’s performance of the work before another live audience in Whitney Hall.

The award-winning album is the latest collaboration of Yang and Abrams in a friendship that dates to their college days at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia – both setting sail on careers that went each on their own way, but with occasional happy intersections.

“We were at Curtis together, and about the same age, and she was already starting to play major performances,” Abrams recalled in an interview advancing Wang’s debut of the Piano Concerto. “It’s not unusual at Curtis for there to be people who already have significant careers while still students there. But in her case, I think everybody knew that this was quite unusual the speed that her career was taking off.”

Abrams and Wang became working friends when Teddy signed up to accompany Yuja in preparation for lessons and concerts. While Yuja played her solo part, Teddy would play the orchestral part on another piano – a “reduction” of the orchestra’s score consolidated as a piano accompaniment. In other words two pianos: Yuja soaring off in artistic flight. Teddy trying to keep up.

“She was already performing at such a high level that no other pianist at the school would dare accompany her,” recalled Abrams. “Either I was just foolish, or brave, but I signed up to play for her. She would call me 30 minutes before her lesson, and say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m going to do the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto, or I’m doing Beethoven, or Prokofiev’s third, and can you come play the orchestra part?’ And I’d say sure, sure.

“I’d be thinking, what’s the worst thing that could happen? And so I’d come and ‘sight read’ my way through those things.”

Of course, Abrams, himself, was an accomplished player – at a certain level. More importantly, he was a budding young conductor and composer, with a good understanding for the virtuosity Wang was showing. “It was the beginning of a really special relationship that we have retained to this day,” said Abrams.

Abrams and Wang continued their work sessions, when possible.

“It’s a really private thing,” Wang explained. “You learn the music. You understand something. It’s like reading poetry by yourself. And then you have to read it when there’s another person in the room, and you have to make the other person like it – and share what you have in mind.”

Abrams invited Wang to lead off the Louisville Orchestra’s 2017-18 season, and the pianist mesmerized a Louisville audience in a vivid performance of the Rachmaninoff fourth piano concerto. Wang then ripped off a string of astonishingly fast and fun little encores, with the audience cheering her on.

It was only natural that Abrams was thinking of composing something special for his friend Yuja Wang. Only the piano concerto wasn’t what the artists first had in mind.

“The original concept was that I would write a companion piece for her to play when she performs Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Something that had the same kind of jazzy American populist vibe that orchestras could program alongside Rhapsody – because that piece is such an unusual length. Just sixteen and a half minutes long. Generally, if you’re an orchestra and bring Yuja in, you would also have her do something else.”

But what?

“It’s always been a little bit of a puzzler as to what to program with Rhapsody in Blue,” explained Abrams. “There are shorter concertos that could be played, but they’re in very different styles (from the Gershwin classic). So I thought this was a great opportunity to write a companion piece.”

Perhaps another 17-minute piece, with Gershwin’s jazzy vibe.

“But then this new piece kind of blossomed into a much, much larger work,” said Abrams, who clocks his concerto at 35 minutes. A standalone.

Abrams said his concerto references Gershwin’s Jazz Age style, but ventures beyond to look at the many visages of musical Americana. That’s been a broad theme of Abrams’ tenure here.

“The piano, in particular, is a kind of wanderer that makes it through hundreds of years of musical history,” said Abrams. “I see this concerto as an opportunity for the piano to kind of guide us through what I think is one of the strengths of American culture, its plurality, its interconnectedness.”

Before the premiere, Abrams visited Wang in New York to work on the concerto. Except with just one piano. No accompaniment this time. “It’s too hard for me!” said Abrams, with a laugh.

But not for Wang.

“I think she’s one of the greatest pianists alive, and of all time, if I can safely say that,” said Abrams.

And interesting that his concerto is “too hard” for the composer to play.

“I mean I can kind of pick my way through it, you know, slowly,” says Abrams. “But working with Yuja on the piece in New York was something special. To hear her play it, at tempo for the first time, was like a revelation.

“There is such a difference between looking at it on the page, and even imagining it in my head, and then hearing it brought to life by a human being. Just one of the most gratifying experiences any creative musician can have.”

And brought alive by his friend Yuja Wang.

“I always intended for her to be the one to take the piece and make it her own,” says Abrams. “And ideally come to Louisville to premier it.”

For “The American Project” album, Wang also performs a piece by Michael Tilson Thomas called, You Come Here Often? The GRAMMY is the first for Wang, Abrams, and the Louisville Orchestra.

In accepting the golden gramophone trophy at the GRAMMY Awards ceremony, Abrams was succinctly straightforward.

“First,” he said. “A huge congratulations to the incredible Yuja Wang, who soloed on this extraordinary album and is one of the most talented musicians in the world right now  a person who has drawn so many people to the music we play. And a giant congratulations to all my colleagues at the Louisville Orchestra – an orchestra that is famous for its innovation, for putting out so many albums of living composers since it was founded in 1937. I am so proud of everyone at the orchestra, to the people of Louisville and to everybody that made this all happen. Thank you very, very much.”


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