Jecorey Arthur in The Greatest. Photo by O’Neil Arnold.
The Greatest: Muhammad Ali
The Louisville Orchestra
Composed and Conducted by Teddy Abrams
Directed and Vocalized by Jubilant Sykes
Guest Vocalists Rhiannon Giddens and Jecorey Arthur
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents are copyright © 2017 Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
It is not often that Louisville is treated to a World Premiere orchestral piece, but, lucky for us, we have a young talent of renown who serves as our orchestra’s Music Director: Teddy Abrams.
Maestro Abrams had been a fan of boxing and the legend that was and is Muhammad Ali. Upon his first meeting with Ali, the young Maestro was quick to put pen to staff paper and begin composing a piece in tribute to him. When our native son Ali passed away, Mr. Abrams felt an urgent need to create an even larger piece that would highlight the trials and accomplishments of Ali’s life.
He soon started reading and ingesting many critical works as it pertained to the life of Ali such as “King of the World” by David Remnick, and “The Fight” by Norman Mailer. These led to many other works, large and small, prose and poetry, biographies and even articles in magazines like Playboy. It is within these words that Mr. Abrams was able to start shaping the lyrics and music that would soon become The Greatest: Muhammad Ali.
I am in awe of the amount of work and commitment that was used to create this work that I would consider an Oratorio with elements of rap music and a smidgen of opera. To be honest, I don’t think the Louisville audience was sure exactly what was about to be laid before them.
What we had the privilege of listening to was an orchestral piece that I hope will be used in years to come in school and civic programs that highlight the strife that Ali and his fellow African-Americans endured during the 20th century (and still to this day) in the USA.
As a prelude, Muhammad Ali’s good friend, radio personality John Ramsey, came out and shared some of his fondest memories of his friend and in a loving tribute imitated his voice and rhyme introducing Maestro Abrams and the Orchestra.
As the orchestra began playing a sharp and engaging opening our narrator for the evening, Olivia Dawson, began telling the life of young Ali and his family and the incident that would lead him to the boxing ring: the theft of his brand new red bicycle. Jecorey Arthur came to the stage as The Champ in boxing attire and rapped “I Am the Greatest”, giving the audience a taste of one of the many musical themes of the evening.
While Ali’s story continued to unfold through Ms. Dawson, vocalists Rhiannon Giddens and Jubilant Sykes entered to perform familiar poems set to music, such as Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise, sung by Ms. Giddens, and Songs of the Broad-Ax by Walt Whitman, performed by Mr. Sykes. Scattered between the songs orators would approach the stage and recreate famous speeches that expressed the consciousness of the world during Ali’s time. We heard the words of Malcolm X and from those that knew the young civil rights martyr, Emmett Till. Even our director of Kentucky Shakespeare, Matt Wallace, did a very good job of impersonating various presidents and their stances and speeches on Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Ali himself. He even nailed JFK’s hard Boston accent and Barack Obama’s precise and connected diction.
If the speeches, great narration, ethereal singing and passionate orchestration wasn’t enough, we were also treated to choreography by Rosie Herrera performed by dancers Lew Winstead and Brandon Ragland, which included a recreation of the infamous bout between Ali and George Forman, commonly referred to as the “Rumble in the Jungle”. While I appreciated the hard work of the dancers and choreographer, I felt that at some points it may have been too much and did not add much to the experience of a speech or musical moment.
As Ali’s story was beginning to come to an end, Mr. Arthur appeared back on stage and tried to emulate some of the ravages of the disease that took over Ali’s body, Parkinson’s. I don’t think it was really necessary to do so as his sitting in a rehearsal chair shaking his arm as if in a tremor was more distracting than anything. I, personally, would have been fine with Mr. Arthur as Ali coming back out as we first met him: healthy and full of himself. Mr. Arthur then grabbed a microphone and began rapping I Am the Greatest again, even inviting the audience to join in. As Mr. Arthur left the stage, along with Ms. Dawson, the Orchestra finished the piece with a lovely finale.
The audience erupted with a quick and heartfelt standing ovation with at least three curtain calls.
I spoke with several friends after the performance and we agreed that this was indeed a great work. Another thing that we talked about is that there were aspects of the piece that made us uncomfortable. Good, I said. We, as a collective, should be made to feel a bit uncomfortable as it pertains to our history and bravo to Maestro Abrams for revealing those points and setting them in a way that allows for reflection and poignancy and maybe even a call to action.
As mentioned the narration and oration were top notch and even the actors who came out to assist in small vignettes and the dancers added much to the evening, but the music touched me even deeper.
Maestro Abrams’ composition was mesmerizing and included instruments not often seen in an orchestral setting, such as an organ, drum kit (Gabe Globus-Hoenich), electric bass (Nate Farrington), and guitar (Craig Wagner). Mr. Abrams was able to incorporate what we know as classical sounds/instrumentation with the familiar strains of popular music found during Ali’s formative years. My ears perked up when I heard a familiar theme, one of my favorite songs by The Beatles: Blackbird. Beautifully placed Mr. Abrams.
If you are not familiar with Rhiannon Giddens, please get to know her. While she got her start in Adult Alternative with the formation of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she is most definitely the future of music. She can play music, has an outstanding vocal tone and presence, and just recently won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. When I first saw her perform here in Louisville with the Drops I could see and hear that this lady was going places.
Jubilant Sykes brings his award-winning baritone back to Louisville, a voice that shimmers and shines like a beacon in the night. His work on The Greatest: Muhammad Ali as both director and vocalist was flawless. I look forward to further collaborations between Mr. Sykes and our Musical Director.
I must be honest; rap music does not interest me in the slightest. Yes, I know it has a place in our musical history now, but it just doesn’t do anything for me. I am sad to say that it still didn’t really do anything for me within this piece. However, under the masterful prowess of local celebrity and music teacher Jecorey Arthur, it wasn’t half bad. I have been watching Mr. Arthur’s star rise for a while and enjoy his exuberance for music that he shares with the Louisville community. There were times that Mr. Arthur’s rapping was extremely difficult to understand, and I am not sure the lavalier microphone was the best choice, as it picked up heightened breaths that distracted from clear articulation. Despite that technical difficulty, when it was good, it was very good, and you could tell that Mr. Arthur was honored to play Ali.
The music and the message of The Greatest: Muhammad Ali will be resonating with me for a very long time. I hope this piece will become a catalyst for peace, harmony, and understanding just as Ali sought to be during his lifetime and beyond.
The Greatest: Muhammad Ali
November 4, 201
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 W. Main St
Louisville, KY 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.