The Wharton Center is 'S Wonderful with the accompaniment of George Gershwin classics

The State News, Michigan State University
The State News, Michigan State University

Teddy Abrams and Morgan James, just like other all other passionate American musical fans, see George Gershwin as the godfather of all musical theater, holding the classics in his songbook. On April 14, the duo is bringing their favorite composer to the Wharton Center.

Teddy Abrams, named the 2022 Musical America Conductor of the Year, conducts the orchestra playing the music he describes as inspiring, real, and fresh, even when the music has been heard for nearly a century.

“Gershwin’s work in particular is some of the great American music and cultural output … it is a representation of Gershwin’s unbounded spirit and his beautiful sense for putting together different styles of music," said Abrams.

Abrams sees his job as a bridge between the beautiful music he gets to play and the audience, looking for music to connect to.

“It feels like they are connecting with the man or the spirit behind the music, which brings tremendous joy and energy to audiences, so that's why … its endured in musical theater and classical music,” Abrams said.

While Abrams also loves to perform Bernstein and Sondheim's discography, he believes that Gershwin laid the foundation to all musical theater history.

“He had the energy of making music spontaneously and combining that with the gift of making melody which was unsurpassed is one of the hallmarks of his music and inspired every single … composer to come,” Abrams said.

While the musical theater personality in the music is a main aspect of the tunes, he believes that people can enjoy it without having knowledge of every classic put on the stage by Gershwin.

"This music is timeless. It's also quintessentially American," Abrams said. "It is music that even if it was written nearly a hundred years ago like Gershwin’s work, you’re talking about the melody and orchestration and memorability to his music that transcends eras and generations.”

Abrams explained that he can't imagine being someone who does not have an affinity towards Gershwin in the same way he cannot imagine anyone who does not have an affinity for Beethoven: music that is timelessly appreciated for its artistic and culture additives.

Whatever composer Abrams is emulating on stage, he focuses on how he wants the audience to react. He explained that live theater is the only activity where an audience member does not experience it on their own terms, but communally, sharing emotional reactions and quality time with others all enjoying the same niche interest in orchestral performance.

“It is one of the few opportunities we have to experience something where we leave a bit of ourselves at the door," Abrams said.

He explained that being able to conduct, and therefore connect to this audience on a deeper level, tapped in with the music, transmitting energy back and forth between the listeners and the musicians is why a conductor does their job. He explained the feeling as boundless and pure magic.

While Abrams is a chart topping conductor, he explained it in terms of what was really important to him as an artist. He said that most artists, like Gershwin, do not understand the success they have because they are simply focused on their craft. While he is thankful for the opportunities these accolades have provided him with, he concerns himself with the art he lives for first.

“You do it because this is the thing that you believe most in your life … and that has to be your guiding principle,” Abrams said.

He also does it for his partner in music: Morgan James, vocalizing the Gershwin ballads with him at the Wharton. He believes that she is one of the most versatile musicians, explaining that getting to hear her perform any style of music is a treat.

“It is really special to work with a musician who you care about as an artist, partner and a friend,” Abrams said.

James grew up with musical theater as a constant in her life, her dad being her drama teacher and looking up to performing Broadway as her life goal and a big part of her musical journey.

“I think that I was put on this Earth to sing live music,” James said.

Performing with this live orchestra on one of her favorite stages is something that is incomparable to anything else.

“Being accompanied by a full symphony orchestra is like this beautiful, warm blanket," James said. "It’s so magical and it never gets old.”

James is also passionate about Gershwin's music, moved by the melody, hoping to take the audience back to a more romantic and effortless time in music history.

James is confident that the MSU audience will also connect with the music, explaining that she sees a reverence and love for classic and iconic music from the past in our younger generation.

She sees this when she comes to the Wharton Center to teach her songwriting camp to young hopefuls, looking for inspirations and skills to make it in the music industry. She explained that the Wharton Center has always been a supporter of her career, as well as younger audience members hoping to make their way to the stage just as James has. James said this is why she always says yes to coming back when the Wharton Center invites her to perform.

Abrams was also complimentary of East Lansing's home to culture.

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“It's a wonderful venue and an incredibly welcome one," Abrams said. "The orchestra is fantastic. They already have a relationship with both Morgan and me. We performed their a couple years ago with our Bernstein show…I remember it being a total highlight.”

Both James and Abram's are thrilled to be performing some of their most beloved music on one of their favorite stages on tour. Gershwin, as well as the duo, is sure to bring the Cobb Great Hall back in time to the humble beginnings of Broadway.

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