GFS grad to conduct Philly’s 'Celebration of Independence'

Posted 7/2/20

“I loved growing up in Mt. Airy,” said Abell, a Germantown Friends School alumnus who will conduct the Zoom concert on July 3, an annual celebration of Independence Day. by Rita Charleston At …

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GFS grad to conduct Philly’s 'Celebration of Independence'

“I loved growing up in Mt. Airy,” said Abell, a Germantown Friends School alumnus who will conduct the Zoom concert on July 3, an annual celebration of Independence Day.

by Rita Charleston

At the age of just 14, he began conducting and went on to study with people like world-renowned classical music figures like Leonard Bernstein and Nadia Boulanger. He earned degrees from such prestigious institutions as Yale University and the Juilliard School after intensive study of viola, piano and composition.

Over the years he's worked with such distinguished artists as Judi Dench, Josh Groban, Michael Feinstein and many others. He's appeared regularly on television, most notably conducting the 10th and 25th anniversary concerts of “Les Misérables.”

Previously, he served as Guest Conductor and Principal Guest Conductor of The Philly POPS, and was recently named Music Director and Principal Conductor of the POPS. For years he's made his home in London and has traveled the world, but David Charles Abell, who lived in Mt. Airy during his young life, said he will always consider it his “home.”

Abell was born in North Carolina where his father was serving with the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune. But once his father's tour of duty was over, he moved his family to New York, where he went to study law at Columbia University. “But once he graduated, my mother, who had deep roots in Chestnut Hill, insisted on moving us back to Philadelphia where we settled in Mt. Airy. I was four when we moved there, and even though we moved again out to the Chicago area when I was about 12, I've always considered Philadelphia my home,” said Abell, who will be conducting the city's annual Celebration of Freedom on Friday, July 3. “POPS on Independence” will be streamed at 7 p.m. and is accessible at or

“I loved growing up in Mt. Airy,” continued Abell, a product of Germantown Friends School, whose love of music actually began in Mt. Airy. “One day my mother took me to Grace Church to talk to the choir master who headed a boys' choir there. And I started to sing with him. I was never a good singer. I was never a star. But I certainly loved singing church music.”

Not long after that, Abell took up the trumpet at GFS before he was switched to the viola. “I'm really glad I learned that instrument because I think it's really good for every conductor to learn a stringed  instrument and understand how strings work. And you learn to listen to what's going on around you better than almost any other instrument in the orchestra. So those experiences as a young chid served me well and prepared me to become a conductor.”

Aside from the church music, there were two other things Abell said he loved most about living in Mt. Airy. “One was riding my bike around the neighborhood, and the other was sledding. I remember there  were lots of sledding hills there, and we would race down those hills. I'm not really a sporty person, but those were my two best memories of Mt. Airy.

“My father worked in Center City, but Mt. Airy was a world all its own so we didn't go downtown very much,” he said, “although I wish I had gone there more. I wish my parents had taken me to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra, but I think my mother had her hands full with me and my four younger siblings.”

But later, Abell treated himself to lush orchestral music, as well as the pop music of the day, including The Beatles, The Stones, Motown music. He admits he just loved it all, and that it was an equal part of his musical upbringing along with the classics. And all that, he explains, along with a marvelous education and being exposed to all kinds of music, has prepared him well for taking over the reins of the Philly POPS. And Friday's performance should be perfect proof of that.

The performance will feature a new look at some patriotic standards. pop favorites and more. The POPS will also perform the world debut of a new work titled “Fanfare for the Frontline Workers,” which honors those who protect us all. Listeners can also expect to hear “Philadelphia Freedom,” “S'Wonderful,” “Amazing Grace” and others.

“I consider conducting telling a story with music,” Abell, 61, explains. “And whether conducting orchestra, musical theater, operas, whatever, I don't see any difference. For me, it's all the same job. I want to have the audience experience a journey in any piece I'm doing, so I take my POPS work as seriously as I take an opera or any classical work. I think you can describe my approach to the POPS as serious fun, although it's really much more than that.”

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