17 Nov 2023

TEDDY ABRAMS: Overture to The Greatest

by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – T EDDY ABRAMS (b. 1987) – Named Musical America’s Conductor of the Year in 2022, Teddy Abrams’ name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now. In nearly ten seasons with the Louisville Orchestra, Abrams has endeavored to put the ensemble back on the national map as an industry innovator, a reputation it enjoyed during the last half of the 20th century. Abrams is also a composer of music for a wide range of ensembles and purposes, including Mammoth (an “immersive theater work” intended for performance in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park) and Space Variations for piano and electronica (written for World Sleep Day 2022). He is currently working on a Broadway show based on the life of Muhammad Ali.      

Teddy Abrams
Teddy Abrams
photo by Jon Cherry

THE HISTORY – The forthcoming ALI won’t be the first time Abrams has explored the legacy of the celebrated boxer and anti-war activist. Inspired to commemorate the career of one of Louisville’s favorite sons after he passed in 2016, Abrams conceived the idea for The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, an “opera-rap-oratorio mashup” (as he described it to The Guardian’s Damian Fowler in 2017). To fashion a thematic building block for this ambitious construction, Adams first collaborated with friend and fellow Louisville artist, Jim James of the rock band My Morning Jacket. Imbedded in the piece they recorded together was material that would be put to excellent use in The Greatest, Abrams’ musical tribute to Ali’s childhood, his fighting career, his anti-Vietnam outspokenness, his conversion to Islam and the larger-than-life persona that made him one of the 20th century’s most unforgettable figures. Only an oratorio in the mode of Bach or Handel could handle the scope of such a story, Abrams told The Guardian. A traditional operatic format was not the right fit. “Ali was a very verbal person,” he stated, “and for me, doing vignettes of his life acted out between characters would take away from the power of what he said and wrote.” Further collaborative contributions came from Rhiannon Giddens, Jubilant Sykes and the Louisville-based hip-hop entertainer Jecorey “1200” Arthur, who grew up in Ali’s west Louisville neighborhood. In Arthur’s voice, the swagger of Ali’s speeches was brought thrillingly back into being. His own work, then and now, as an educator and activist underscores the raw, genuine power of his interpretation. For his part, Abrams acknowledged to The Guardian that his own whiteness might be brought into the discussion of his piece about a black icon. “It doesn’t matter – white or black,” he told Fowler, “we are all influenced by Muhammad Ali’s story. He was that powerful and that influential.”                  

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 2017, Robert Mugabe was ousted in Zimbabwe, the government of Myanmar stepped up its campaign of ethnic violence against the Rohingya people and the first total solar eclipse since 1918 captivated North America.

THE CONNECTION – These concerts represent the Utah Symphony premiere of the Overture from Teddy Abrams’ opera The Greatest.