Michael Abels

Michael Abels has been described as a composer with a gift for “[juxtaposing] elements unleashed in an irresistible display of orchestral color” (Cleveland Plain Dealer), who possesses a “keen ear and a deft ability to adapt structural elements from popular music into the symphonic idiom,” (Houston Chronicle).

Primarily a composer of large forms, Abels has applied his skillful compositional approach to over 20 orchestral works. His much-admired piece Global Warming—written around the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War—was commissioned for and premiered by the Phoenix Youth Symphony in 1991. Given the current social context of the title, Global Warming was originally conceived as a piece that reflects the many similarities between folk music of divergent, immigrant cultures, and celebrates these common threads as well as the sudden improvement in international relations that occurred at the time. Global Warming has received over 100 performances by such prominent symphony orchestras as Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston, Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit, and Nashville. Global Warming was also one of the first works of an African-American composer to be performed by the National Symphony of South Africa following the election of President Nelson Mandela.

In the time leading up to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Abels was working on a National Symphony commission and had written an encore to follow Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. But as he watched the rescue efforts of the first responders unfold on television over several days, he abandoned the encore. Abels composed a new work–Tribute–which didn’t attempt to depict the horror of the event, but, instead, to offer a picture of the unified spirit of the immediate aftermath. Premiered on November 8, 2001 and led by Marin Alsop, Tribute is a simple chorale that begins in muted despair but ends in powerful resolve; and it was the first piece the National Symphony performed after 9/11.

Always a thoughtful communicator, Abels cleverly reinvents classical styles while adapting popular idioms. His American Variations on Swing Low Sweet Chariot (1993) was premiered by Doc Severinsen and the Phoenix Symphony. He describes his work More Seasons (1999) (performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra among others) as his “own spin” on early Baroque music, subjecting the themes of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ “to maniacal, Minimalist abuses,” and calling it “Vivaldi in a Mixmaster.” Other orchestral works include: Dance for Martin’s Dream (1998) (after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.) commissioned and premiered by the Nashville Symphony and quickly followed by other performances including the Cleveland Orchestra; Frederick’s Fables (1994)—a four-movement piece for narrator and orchestra based on selected stories of Leo Lionni which was commissioned by Philip Brunelle and the Plymouth Music Series and premiered over two concert series with narrators James Earl Jones and Garrison Keillor (Abels himself narrated the National Symphony’s Kennedy Center concerts); Urban Legends (2008-09) commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and written for the Harlem Quartet and the Sphinx Orchestra, and Aquadia (2009) which was co-commissioned by the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Shedd Aquarium, and subsequently recorded by the ensemble to serve as the featured installation music for the oceanarium’s “Fantasea” exhibit which ran through spring 2011. In spring 2012, Abels’ Delights and Dances was featured on the Chicago Sinfonietta’s season finale-concerts, joined by the Harlem Quartet. Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, the three-movement work (performed as a single movement) is scored for string quartet and string orchestra. Afterward, both ensembles recorded the piece for future release on Cedille Records.

Abels was also commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera and his 40-minute opera Homies & Popz premiered in May 2000 at high schools throughout Los Angeles County. Based on the true story of the Compton Homies & the Popz, the opera tells the story of LA activist Ted Hayes and his successful efforts to create and organize a cricket team in order to provide inner-city youth and homeless adults with an alternative to gang culture. Abels has also created popular, artful gospel arrangements for choir and orchestra which were written for the Reverend James Cleveland. These arrangements are regularly performed throughout the US, and several of them are heard annually on the Atlanta Symphony’s Gospel Christmas program.

A recipient of a Music Alive Residency program from Meet the Composer (now New Music USA) and the League of American Orchestras (formerly the American Symphony Orchestra League), Abels served a 2001-2002 residency with the Richmond Symphony. He also participated in a three-year Meet The Composer New Residencies program held in the Los Angeles Watts community. During this time, he wrote Bitterrootfor the USC Percussion Ensemble, songs and incidental music for the Cornerstone Theater Company’s production of “Broken Hearts: a BH Mystery,” which won Backstage West’s 1999 Garland Award for musical score, and also wrote and performed the score for Cornerstone’s 2000 production of “For Here Or To Go” which ran at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Born in Phoenix, AZ, Abels grew up in rural South Dakota where he began piano lessons at a young age. He attended the University of Southern California, studying with James Hopkins and Robert Linn. In 1985-86, he studied West African music with Alfred Ladzekpo at the California Institute for the Arts. He currently serves as Director of Music for New Roads School in Santa Monica, overseeing a program that provides hands-on instruction in the latest technologies integrally important to contemporary popular music. Aside from his activities as a composer, arranger, and educator, Abels is also an amateur triathlete.