Abels: Frederick’s Fables

Fables are stories that contain a life lesson or a moral.”Michael Abels

On March 12, 2022, Michael Abels joins the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra for a performance of his work Frederick’s Fables, conducted by Stilian Kirov. Scored for narrator and orchestra, the 37-minute, four-movement piece showcases fours texts by celebrated children’s author and illustrator Leo Leonni. Frederick’s Fables was commissioned and premiered by the Minnesota-based ensemble VocalEssence, conducted by Philip Brunelle. VocalEssence presented the first two songs in 1994 featuring James Earl Jones; and in 1996, they premiered the second grouping with guest narrator Garrison Keillor.

Abels shares some insight. “Frederick’s Fables was commissioned by VocalEssence, [which was] at the time called the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota. VocalEssence wanted a piece for narrator and orchestra for James Earl Jones to premiere. Wisely, they asked Mr. Jones, ‘What would you like to narrate, if you were to perform with us?’ Since he had a young son at the time, he said, ‘I’ve always wanted to read a children’s book.’ I remembered the earliest of the Lionni stories from my own childhood; and so, I selected several of his stories that suggested music to me simply through their emotions and colorful illustrations.”

He continues, “In most works for narrator and orchestra, the narrator reads and then the orchestra plays. Or there are interludes in the music over which the narrator reads, without concern that the music might compete with their voice. But in Frederick’s Fables, there are many moments of action in the stories where the narration and the music are closely synchronized. It’s my intention that this allows the listener to see the animated version of the story in their own imagination as the music unfolds.

“Although I’ve narrated a couple of them before, this is the first time they are all being performed as a set. Fables are stories that contain a life lesson or a moral, and these stories were all written between 1965-1985. It is interesting how the interpretation of what the life lessons are supposed to be can change over time, depending on current events and the cultural climate.”

Upcoming: In May, Abels’ opera Omar — written in collaboration with librettist and singer/songwriter Rhiannon Giddens — receives its world premiere at the Spoleto Festival, featuring stage direction by Kaneza Schaal and conducted by John Kennedy. Omar recounts the life and 1831 autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an African scholar enslaved in the Carolinas who refused to be defined or erased by his captors.