The 35th Sun Valley Music Festival—formerly the Sun Valley Summer Symphony—is now in full swing. The nearly monthlong free orchestral series has, to date, touched upon Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Strauss and others, including new works by contemporary composer Mason Bates, and an evening of Gershwin performed by virtuoso pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
A Gershwin resurgence awaits symphonygoers on the horizon, featuring the long-overdue return of conductor, pianist and composer Teddy Abrams.
Abrams is currently in the midst of a yet another busy summer. As of this issue’s publication, he is halfway through a six-day break between music festivals, having just wrapped up the 2019 Britt Music Festival—set in Jacksonville, Ore.—for which he is music director.
The Britt Festival is his summer gig, not to understate the tremendous amount of work that goes into it. During the year, Abrams leads the Louisville Orchestra and composes tirelessly, dipping his toes into any genre that speaks to him. Proving his versatility to anyone who may yet doubt it, he even wrote a popular rap-opera about Louisville’s greatest hometown hero, Muhammad Ali.
For several previous summers, the Britt Festival and Sun Valley Symphony schedules conflicted, prohibiting Abrams’ involvement. Despite his long absence, though, Abrams said he will feel very much at home during his long-anticipated return to Sun Valley.
“I’ve known Alasdair since I was 10 years old,” Abrams said, referring to Sun Valley festival musical director Alasdair Neale. “He’s one of my favorite people to work with. I came for many years as assistant conductor.”
The dynamic pair will team up yet again for the annual Pops Night, which always proves—fittingly and for lack of a better word—popular. The Pops Night program, as the name implies, gives the symphony a brief intermission from classical music and instead redirects focus on some more contemporary, popular tunes.
This year, the program features favorites by iconic 20th-century American composer George Gershwin. Abrams will alternate as both conductor and pianist. Under Neale’s conduction, he will perform Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue” before taking the baton to lead the orchestra and featured vocalist Morgan James in the rest of the program.
Favorites from “An American in Paris,” “Porgy and Bess” and others will all feature in the lineup. The entire program will pay special tribute to this highly influential Oscar winner and posthumous Pulitzer and Congressional Gold Medal recipient.
Abrams sang Gershwin’s praises at length, citing him as a particular influence and even role model.
“I really enjoy the feeling of being able to switch back and forth between different areas of the musical world, conducting, composing and performing,” he said. “Gershwin was a multi-style performer like that. He famously played the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ himself, but was a naturally talented conductor.”
Expanding upon that point, Abrams said, “Music flowed from him like a fountain. For him, it was natural. He was always coming up with things, reinventing, studying, writing until the day he died. He was always thinking ahead for the next project. That’s something that inspires me.”
Gershwin’s untimely death came to him at the young age of 38. A malignant brain tumor claimed this endlessly talented composer and musician with several works left in progress and unfinished. His legacy continues to influence composers like Abrams to this day.
In addition to the iconic orchestral “Rhapsody” and the instantly recognizable show tunes, the program will include some jazz standards, especially those arranged for Ella Fitzgerald. Morgan James, with whom Abrams has often collaborated and for whom he has just finished composing a song cycle, will bring Gershwin’s lyrics to life in electrifying fashion.
Abrams hopes the evening will do justice to one of America’s greatest composers, a man who, in Abrams’ words, “showed off a penchant for melody that few other people have ever had.”
The Pops Night program will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Sun Valley Pavilion, and, like all Sun Valley Music Festival concerts, this evening of musical classics is performed free of charge and open to the public.
For a full schedule of the remaining 2019 symphony series, visit svmusicfestival.org.