Ex-GFS student leading POPS holiday concerts: Mt. Airy native one of the world’s premier conductors

Local Life December 13, 2013 1 Comment

David, whose mother was a Chestnut Hill debutante, is seen rehearsing with an orchestra for an awards show in 2012.

David, whose mother was a Chestnut Hill debutante, is seen rehearsing with an orchestra for an awards show in 2012.

by Len Lear

When David Charles Abell, now 55, was growing up in Mt. Airy (the son of a Chestnut Hill debutante) and attending Germantown Friends School in the 1960s, no one could have predicted that he would eventually become a protege of Leonard Bernstein and one of the world’s premier conductors whose wide range of repertoire knowledge and skill encompasses symphonic music, opera and musical theatre.

Abell has conducted many of the top British orchestras including the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, City of Birmingham and Royal Scottish. Internationally, he has appeared with the Wiener Symphoniker, Atlanta and Cincinnati Symphonies, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Iceland Symphony, West Australian Symphony and New York Pops orchestras.

His many television and radio appearances have encompassed a wide repertoire, from Johann Strauss with the period-instrument Wiener Akademie to Beethoven with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. David also conducted the “Les Misérables” 10th and 25th Anniversary Concerts, both televised worldwide.

Abell’s early education included intensive study of singing, piano, viola and composition before a decision at age 14 to concentrate on conducting. He earned degrees from Yale University and Juilliard School of Music. He studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein and attended Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau, France, where he studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. At Yale, he was Music Director of the Bach Society, where his gift for creative programming was first in evidence.

Abell is currently conducting the Philly POPS Orchestra in nine holiday concerts through Dec. 21 at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center. He graciously took time out last weekend to answer several questions we thought readers might be interested in. Here are our questions and his answers:

Local: What do you recall most, both positive and negative (if there is any negative) about growing up in this area and attending GFS?

Abell: It’s all positive. I do remember the freedom of being able to ride our bikes around the neighborhood — without helmets and without being supervised. Those were different times. My cousins lived here; my aunts and uncles and are still here. In fact, 39 members of my family will be at the last Philly POPS concert on the 21st! I also remember the snow. Loving the snow. Snowball fights, snow forts, snow days off from school and sledding. And I remember crashing on my bike and crashing when I was sledding, and somehow I survived to be an adult today. I loved GFS.

Local: Did your time and schooling here have any effect on your eventual career in musical theater?

Abell: Absolutely had an effect. I was a choir boy at Grace Lutheran Church in Mt. Airy, and that was the beginning of my music education. We were singing in services every week, and we had to learn to read music and to perform and know when to stand up, to kneel and sing the words and have some discipline. We had a strict old choir master who probably must have been born in 1890. Maybe not THAT old, but he was old. He was a little scary, a disciplinarian, but he whipped us into shape, and also I loved the music. A lot of the music that was done in the Episcopal church was English church music, and I became an Anglophile. I always felt really at home in England, and I love living there. I’ve lived in London for 17 years.

Local: Were your parents musicians?

Abell: Both of my parents played the piano, both amateur musicians. I remember falling asleep to my father playing Chopin’s Mazurkas.

Local: I know you were a protege of Leonard Bernstein. What do you most recall of your relationship with him?

Abell: Actually, I most admired his humanity. He was probably the most interesting person I’d ever met, but when you were with him, he made you feel like YOU were the most interesting person he ever met. He was a great educator. About music, of course, but also literature, linguistics and poetry. “Nothing is real for me unless I share it.” I loved that he said that. It was really true of him. It was his compositions I knew first. I performed in “Mass,” a theater piece Bernstein wrote to open the Kennedy Center in 1971 in honor of John F. Kennedy and dedicated to him. I was honored to be in the Berkshire Boys Choir that summer, and we were chosen to perform it in Washington at the opening of The Kennedy Center. Here I was at age 13 on the The Kennedy Center stage with great performers, a mix of singers from opera to Broadway to rock. My career has always been like that — a mix of styles, and I love that.

Local: What are your most significant memories of working with giants like Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron MacIntosh?

Abell: The main thing about Sondheim is he’s a great colleague; he is a team player, even though he’s a great genius. He has the gifts of composition and lyric writing which are almost unbelievable, but he always acknowledges his collaborators as key to his success. It was my idea to do an 80th birthday concert for him at The Proms in London, but I had never worked for him before, so I was quite nervous. He flew overnight, arrived in the morning just in time for the final rehearsal. The concert was going to be televised and broadcast on radio. I thought, “What would he say?” And his only notes were minor things. He stayed awake the entire day, went to the concert, went to drinks after dinner; he was tireless. The audience went crazy for him. It was a huge success. A lot of it is on YouTube.

I admire Andrew Lloyd Webber a lot. A lot of classical musicians look down on him, but he is very gifted at writing melodies, and writing simple melodies is harder than people think. He also is constantly taking risks. The project I worked on with him was the sequel to “Phantom of the Opera,” called “Love Never Dies.” A lot of his fans thought he shouldn’t write a sequel. There was resistance from the beginning. He wrote a beautiful score, and I conducted the premiere of that, and conducted it for a year on the West End and loved it. The show was not a big hit.

On Cameron MacIntosh, he made me the most famous I will ever be with the “Les Miserables” 10th Anniversary Concert, and then he asked me to do the 25th Anniversary Concert. When he introduced me to the orchestra, he said with a laugh, “He only works once every 15 years!”

Local: Of all the experiences you have had in your remarkable career, which one or two were the most memorable, and why?

Abell: Those “Les Miserables” concerts were probably the most memorable I’ve had. They were so overwhelming. The first one was at the Royal Albert Hall, which seats 5,000. The second was two performances at the O2, which has 16,000 seats. I never watched the 25th. My mother loved watching the 10th Anniversary with me, but she died in 2001, and I’ve never gotten around to watching the 25th yet!

Local: How were you able to get to the top of your profession while thousands of other talented musicians were not?

Abell: I don’t really know. I was very lucky to have an incredibly great education. In spite of the education, I could have disappeared like a stone. That education really didn’t guarantee you anything. You have to have the passionate desire to do music and theater; otherwise you don’t really have a chance. You often wonder why someone has succeeded — ambition, hard work and desire.

Ticket information for the Philly Pops holiday concerts led by Abell can be found at www.phillypops.org or 215-893-1999.

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.

  • David R. Abell

    This is a great interview with my son. I did notice that the reporter picked up the wrong church: I was a choir boy at Grace Lutheran Church in Mt. Airy. It’s actually Episcopal, as mentioned later in that paragraph. Yes, I played Chopin in those days.

    David R. Abell, North Kingstown RI