I have spent this past week heartsick at the loss of Gabe D’Abruzzo, who died this past Monday in a drowning accident in New Jersey.
I first met Gabe in 2012, when I joined the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, for which he was the insanely talented accompanist. Gabe was a master pianist who could sight-read virtually anything, and for whom it seemed no piece of music was too difficult. Allegro runs of thirty-second notes with key changes every other bar? No sweat. Play a 2/4 rhythm in one hand against a 6/8 rhythm on the other? Bring it on. Take on the jarring, dissonant accompaniment to modern compositions with unexpected chord configurations and multiple tempo changes? Piece of cake. And no matter how devilishly difficult the score, Gabe made it all look effortless and easy, as if his fingers were merely a conduit to the keyboard for the notes on the page.
In so many ways, Gabe was part of the glue of the Bach Choir – he helped teach us all, by both example and through occasional observations and notes, how to be better musicians, and through his virtuoso musicianship he incentivized us all to rise to his level of excellence. Gabe was a musician in every fiber of his being. Although he never told me so directly, I believe he had perfect pitch – at the very least, he often amazed us all by being able to determine that, for example, the bass section had sung an E flat instead of an E in a given measure (something he’d somehow managed to hear while playing accompaniment on a grand piano). I remember vividly one time we didn’t have a tenor soloist in rehearsal, and when none of the choir members felt confident enough to sight-read the solo, Gabe volunteered to sing it himself, and proceeded to play the piano score and sight-sing the vocal line (much to the shame and embarrassment of us mere mortals in the choir) with a clear tenor that rivalled anyone in the choir. Gabe also had a compendious memory for music – at times we would encounter a melody or chord progression that seemed vaguely familiar, and suddenly Gabe would bust out a bar or two of the classical or popular music it resembled from his internal music Rolodex. He was, in short, the definition of a prodigious talent.
I came to know Gabe more closely a few years ago when my daughters began singing with the Fox Chapel Area High School choirs – he also served as their accompanist, and after hearing him play my oldest daughter arranged to take piano lessons from him. Gabe was as brilliant a teacher as he was a musician, inspiring his students to take on challenges they didn’t know they were ready for and generous in his sharing of both technical skill and musical theory.
The last time I saw Gabe, it was at a “Summer Sing” held by the Bach Choir. We were singing the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, which begins with something like fifteen minutes of a wickedly challenging and absolutely gorgeous piano solo. I had listened to the piece on youtube earlier in the day before rehearsal and had been impressed by the difficulty of the piano concerto that starts the piece. Because the purpose of the summer sing is primarily to give vocalists a chance to try out new music, I had assumed that we would only be singing the choral part when we gathered together. But to all our surprise, Gabe played the first half of the piece, and he didn’t merely play it – he performed it, stunningly, breathtakingly, masterfully. Five minutes in, I wished I had realized what was about to happen and pulled out my phone to get a recording, because not only was his performance vastly superior to the youtube version I had heard earlier that day, but it was also a little surreal to be present as this musical genius – in shorts and flip flops – absolutely slayed the Choral Fantasy for an audience of a hundred volunteer singers in the chapel of Rodef Shalom. It was a gift I wanted to share with others somehow.
Now I wish I had taken that video because it was the last I would ever hear Gabe play.
We will miss you, Gabe; we will miss your humor, your grace, your genius, and, above all, the music you brought into our lives.