Michael Abels, the Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

How Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels turned an enslaved man’s narrative into an opera about the power of storytelling

The sound of the sea at dawn on a summer morning could easily be mistaken for a lullaby. It sounds like the gentle tide that lulls children home from the beach. “Oh, mama, take care,” the little voice would call. But in the distance, as I stand at the edge of a tiny cove and look out at the horizon line stretching out in an endless sea of blue, I realize that all of this is merely the opening voice of a man.

Rhiannon Giddens is the artistic director of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, and today she’s introducing me to Michael Abels, the conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who has conducted me from beginning to end this summer in that city.

When we met in person, I thought about how differently the two of us might respond to our respective orchestral encounters. Abels, after all, is the musical director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the oldest American orchestra in continuous existence, which was founded in 1886 by a handful of musical friends seeking a place in which to share music. My orchestral experience has come, at least in part, from my love for the Cleveland Orchestra, for whom I’ve worked countless times, most recently on the recording I made of Barber’s Fourth Symphony with Giddens as its arranger.

Giddens and Abels were childhood friends, but it was Abels’ work as an assistant conductor for Giddens’ Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Giddens’ success behind the scenes as the orchestras’ musical director (as well as her ability to coax the best out of the musicians who work directly for her), that ultimately led to Abels’ early-career orchestral career.

“Michael was the third assistant conductor we had for the Chicago orchestra. We

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