Deborah Abramson, the music director for The Gardens of Anuncia, conducts a ten-piece ensemble with utter ease. But as with most forms of excellence, arriving at effortlessness requires effort. When she first got the score from composer Michael John LaChiusa, Abramson told me on a recent two-show Saturday, “I practiced it on the piano for hours and hours a day. I wanted to make sure that the music was so completely in my brain and body that I didn’t have to think about it while I conducted from the keyboard during a performance.”
Once she had completed her own preparation, Abramson, who previously worked at LCT on LaChiusa’s Bernarda Alba, turned her attention to the actors in the rehearsal room. “My job,” she said, “is to assess what each individual needs and provide help in the process.”
Aiding Abramson with these goals is her professional background. “I’ve logged many more hours as an accompanist than as a conductor,” she said. “And I’ve played the piano for lots and lots of auditions. This helps me work with performers to address what they’re nervous about. I try to get into their shoes and inside their heads.”
Abramson grew up in suburban Detroit and started piano lessons at the age of four, “because my older brother was doing it and I wanted to do what he did.” She added: “My piano teacher was very insightful. She told me that I was destined to be a coach and accompanist not a solo performer.” Abramson didn’t take that advice completely to heart until later, when she didn’t get an acting part in a show and ended up as its music director.
“That was the first time I was taking care of someone other than myself, and I found that very satisfying.” Like LaChiusa – like most theater adepts – she finds immense satisfaction in collaborating. “If you don’t enjoy the process of working with others you probably won’t enjoy a career in this art form.”
Abramson has high praise for all nine musicians with whom she works on Anuncia. If she made special mention of David W. Hodges, who plays the bandoneon, a type of concertina, it is in part because of the rarity of being able to work with such an instrumentalist. “There aren’t many bandoneon players in the world,” she said, “so I’m enjoying having the chance to work with one. It’s an instrument very associated with the tango. And since the tango inflects this show in so many ways it’s wonderful to have a bandoneon as part of it.”
How does Abramson feel about being back in the Mitzi E. Newhouse space, where Bernarda Alba happened in 2006? “I am very happy here. The acoustic is very alive. I realized that fact one day while sitting in the theater during the rehearsal period and understanding every word of what a couple of people were talking about on the other side of the house. You have to be mindful of what you say here.”
A conductor in a standard orchestra pit can watch actors head-on during a performance. For Anuncia, Abramson and the other musicians perform in the rear of the stage, above the playing area. “Because I can’t see the actors directly,” Abramson said, “I have to rely on what I have observed in the rehearsal room – about how they move and how they breathe. I have to bring a very detailed memory of all this to the performance every night.” She added: “It’s especially important with a score as complex and seamless and beautiful as The Gardens of Anuncia. It's a challenge for me but also a pleasure.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.