Modern audiences may be surprised to learn that throughout music history, composers have often also served as conductors when their music was performed. It was 1687 when French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, credited with being the first person to conduct up in front of an orchestra, stood before a group that was performing one of his works and pounded a large stick on the floor to indicate his desired tempo. (He unfortunately brought the stick down on his foot, eventually developed gangrene and died—an inauspicious debut for the new art form of conducting). Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all conducted their own music with varying degrees of artistry; and Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Bernstein became celebrated conductors, not only of their own music, but of others’ as well. The idea of a musician choosing conducting as their primary profession is a relatively new one, and there are countless tales of creative tension between composers of great orchestral music and the conductors tasked with leading it. Finding a musician equally at home on the podium conducting and at the piano composing is increasingly rare today. Teddy Abrams is such a Renaissance man.
Beginning his musical life as a pianist, then adding the clarinet and eventually becoming a conductor, Abrams has also developed a rich catalog of original compositions, ranging from orchestral works, opera, ballet, and chamber music; to pop tunes, jazz improvisations, and electronica. His Overture in Sonata Form pays homage to “sonata form,” a set of strict compositional protocols utilized in bygone centuries, while using a distinctly modern musical vocabulary, including elements of Eastern European folk music, bluegrass, jazz, rock, and funk. The result is an arrestingly original, thoroughly joyous romp through the idioms and sounds of 21st-century America.
Written in 2014 as a musical gift to both the Louisville Orchestra and the Britt Festival Orchestra, two organizations that had recently engaged him as Music Director, Overture in Sonata Form was inspired by Abrams’ discovery of an old Hammond organ in Oregon. While experimenting with the organ’s orchestral sounds, the first measures of the Overture emerged and served as the musical basis for the entire work.
From the opening jazzy riffs in the drum set and brass section, it is clear that this is not a genteel, classical overture. Freewheeling brass and percussion motives eventually give way to a more expansive, lyrical second theme in the woodwinds and strings. The writing is intricate and rhythmically complex, requiring a high degree of virtuosity from each section of the orchestra. The overall impression is one of joyous celebration—a cinematic, bigger-than-life explosion of energy from a gifted young American artist with the skills to both envision, and bring to life, the voice of his generation.