His own piano teacher told him he wouldn’t get into Curtis, but that he ought to audition anyway, for the experience. So, two weeks after traveling from Pittsburgh with his mother to play for Rudolf Serkin and Eleanor Sokoloff, Charles Abramovic received a letter from the Curtis Institute of Music. He was accepted.
Abramovic has been surprising people his whole life, and it’s easy to see why. His family had almost no interest in music of any kind, let alone classical, although he does remember a Dave Brubeck record in the house. What did he like most about the LP? The bass player.
He did begin piano lessons at age six after his kindergarten teacher noted that he reacted to music “differently” from the other kids, and four years later was playing in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. Playing double bass, that is, although he would take on symphonic piano parts, too.
By this time he was studying piano with Natalie Phillips, whose husband Eugene was a violist and violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as well as composer, and whose sons Daniel and Todd would one day be renowned violinists in the Orion String Quartet. Abramovic remembers private lessons morphing into coaching and chamber music soirées with the Phillips family. Before long he was playing the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on a Pittsburgh Symphony Young People’s Concert. It was clear that music was calling him.
Or maybe it was psychoanalysis. His “light reading” in eighth grade, he confesses, was The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. But Abramovic decided against that as a profession and went with music, although he later discovered that a large part of private teaching is helping students of all personality types and backgrounds. He wonders if it may have produced another benefit, as he did marry the daughter of a psychoanalyst, the cellist, conductor, and composer Heidi Jacob.
After Curtis (where he also played double bass in their orchestra) and Peabody, he earned his DMA at Temple University, with the music of Croatia as his research topic. The Abramović (pronounced Abramovich) family is from that area, and the music fascinates him.
Abramovic as pianist with Mimi Stillman’s Dolce Suono, here playing Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango:
He loves, and plays, the standard piano repertoire, but Abramovic likes to take surprising paths. A favorite is Charles Ives. He’s performed the monumental Concord Sonata (which hardly anyone will attempt), but knows the entire Ives catalog, which has inspired another surprise: Charles Abramovic, composer. His piece Unanswered Hands, for three pianists—piano six-hands, that is—throws in “as many musical memories from childhood” as he could fit. In the same way that Ives uses hymns, marches, and everything else in a piece like The Unanswered Question, Abramovic “out-quotes Ives,” he claims, in a work filled with nostalgia and humor.
He has been a professor at Temple since 1990, and enjoys a career in Philadelphia and beyond as a sought-after soloist, accompanist, chamber musician, and recording artist. One of the most affable and humorous of musicians, he nevertheless cannot hide a ferocious talent that has left not a few shaking their heads over the ease with which he negotiates the most blistering piano writing.
Whether it’s Ives, Babbitt, tango, jazz, rags, new music, his own music, or simply making the impossible look easy, Charles Abramovic is ever full of surprises.