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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The American Project review, Abrams, Tilson Thomas, Yuja Wang, Louisville Orchestra

Summary

A bold, no-holds-barred piano concerto, meticulously performed by both the orchestra and pianist. This is my disc of the year for 2023!

Music review Teddy Abrams, Michael Tilson Thomas, The American Project, Yuja Wang (piano), Teddy Abrams (conductor), Louisville Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

So, here’s how it unfolded: Teddy Abrams, the composer behind the concerto, and Yuja Wang were contemporaries at the Curtis Institute of Music. Their paths often crossed, with Wang at the piano and Abrams stepping in as conductor when needed—frequently at the eleventh hour, the booklet notes reveal. It seemed almost destined, then, that Abrams would compose a concerto for his friend. Born from a desire to complement Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ Abrams’ concerto emerges as a bold piece, blending a spectrum of musical styles—we’re talking soul, blues, jazz, gospel classical music, and I swear I could also detect a sprinkle of pop for good measure.

This is no mere pastiche, though. The multi-movement approach Abrams adopts, together with more traditional classical forms, crafts a truly original work of art. Expect memorable tunes, frenzied dance rhythms, and, as far as technique is concerned, some of the most dazzling cadenzas, played by Wang at breakneck speed. This concerto isn’t merely performed; it’s unleashed. Of course, we all know that Yuja Wand is capable of some of the most impressive playing, but here she simply outdoes herself (and, after all, the concerto demands this kind of virtuosic display).

I have to say that upon initial listening, I was almost inclined to classify this as a ‘feel-good’ composition. But don’t be misled by the term ‘feel-good’—this is anything but a superficial crowd-pleaser. Abrams’ concerto is a powerhouse, requiring virtuosic skill from both the soloist and the orchestra, and the work’s extroverted nature may initially conceal its emotional depth, but the more you listen to it, the more you realise its long-lasting impact on the listener. 

From the very beginning, when the swinging overture opens the concerto, you know you are in for a kaleidoscopic journey through various movements, each highlighting Wang’s dazzling technique and the Louisville Orchestra’s impressive versatility. In fact, it is admirable how Abrams uses the full palette of the Louisville Orchestra to add depth and color. The orchestra, here supplemented by a trio of saxophones, electric guitar, and organ, adds a distinctly American flavor to the soundscape. If I had to highlight a section, it would be the jazzy wind instruments, which evoke a sense of nostalgia that perfectly complements Wang’s expressive playing. Not to mention the prominent drums, which drive the groovy rhythms forward with infectious energy.

But allow me to return to the soloist here; after all, at the heart of it all is Yuja Wang herself, for whom the concerto was written. Her performance is nothing short of extraordinary—she makes even the most challenging parts sound effortless. But it’s not just about the pyrotechnics—Wang brings a deeply personal touch to the more introspective moments, revealing a side of her artistry that feels both vulnerable and authentic (more so than in her recent Rachmaninoff recording with Dudamel).

The album also features another work written for Yuja Wang, the miniature piece You Come Here Often?, by Michael Tilson Thomas. Clocking in at 4 minutes and 39 seconds, it’s a jazzy composition with what I’d describe as capricious flourishes. While it may start with a seemingly innocent introduction, do not be deceived; as the performance progresses, it crescendos into a display of virtuosic brilliance.

Of course, the main work here is Abrams’s piano concerto—indeed, a concerto destined for the standard repertoire—a bold, unequivocally extroverted celebration of America’s musical mosaic.

If I had to choose just one classical album to champion in 2023, ‘American Project’ would be it. It’s that special.

On a High Note

  • Innovative fusion of various musical styles (soul, blues, jazz, gospel, and pop)
  • Original and creative multi-movement structure
  • Dazzling cadenzas performed by Yuja Wang
  • Impressive versatility showcased by the Louisville Orchestra

Room for Variation

  • The eclectic mix of styles might not appeal to classical music purists

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A bold, no-holds-barred piano concerto, meticulously performed by both the orchestra and pianist. This is my disc of the year for 2023!The American Project review, Abrams, Tilson Thomas, Yuja Wang, Louisville Orchestra