By now you must have seen all the ads announcing Lenny’s Revolution: A Centennial Bernstein Celebration, with David Charles Abell and The Philly POPS. Maestro Abell, the principal guest conductor of the 65-piece Philly POPS orchestra, is flying back from London for the Leonard Bernstein celebration concerts, which will be held on February 2 – 4 at the Kimmel Center.
I was able to interview Mr. Abell (pronounced “uh-BELL”) by phone while he was in London. During our conversation, he shared his Philadelphia roots with me, and mentioned that he still has relatives who live in Chestnut Hill.
From ages 4 to 12, Abell lived in Philadelphia, where his mother’s family co-founded the large electronics firm Peirce-Phelps,Inc. Abell sang in the choir at Grace Church in Mt. Airy. He also played in the orchestra at Germantown Friends. He grew up appreciating both classical and pop music; the Beatles were hot when he was a teenager.
Abell had a life-changing experience when he was 12 years old and sang with a boys choir at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The choir performed Leonard Bernstein’s MASS. Although Abell was very shy, his father pushed him forward to meet Bernstein, shake hands with him and get his autograph. Abell recalled it as “an amazing encounter.” At that time, everyone knew that Bernstein had written “West Side Story,” and he was regarded as the greatest American conductor.
Abell’s family moved to Chicago when he was 12. After high school, he went on to Yale, where he earned an academic music degree and also benefited from many great performing opportunities. Each of the 12 Yale colleges had a dining hall, featuring something musical every night, such as a concert or a show. In addition to performing, Abell also conducted a wind band at Yale.
At age 19, he went to France to study with the famous French composer, conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger. Although Boulanger was 90 years old by then, she and her assistant taught the young Abell how to listen to music with intensity.
Abell had learned French in high school in Chicago, but in Paris, he found he had difficulty conversing every day in French. So he decided to practice by speaking French to himself in the mirror. He realized that his personality changed when he spoke French to himself — he became more confident, less shy.
Abell continued his music studies at the Juilliard School, where he met his husband, Seann Alderking. Alderking is British and also has an American passport; Abell now holds both British and American citizenships as well. The two have worked together in musical theater, particularly in the 10th and 25th anniversary productions of “Les Miserables.”
Abell worked closely with Bernstein for years, making him the logical choice to conduct Bernstein’s centennial celebration, “Lenny’s Revolution.” The concert is part of a citywide tribute to Bernstein, led by the National Museum of American Jewish History, which will open its Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music exhibition on March 16.
The 65-piece Philly POPS orchestra will be joined on stage by Broadway stars Lisa Vroman, Alli Mauzey and Ryan Silverman. Vroman returns to the POPS stage after a successful run of 10 POPS Christmas shows in 2015. She is known for her roles as Christine Daaé in “The Phantom of the Opera” and was the first to play both Fantine and Cosette in “Les Misérables.” Mauzey, who last appeared on Broadway as Glinda in “Wicked,” dazzled audiences in the Philly POPS’ 2017 concert “Blockbuster Broadway.” Ryan Silverman’s Broadway credits include Billy Flynn in “Chicago” and Raoul in “The Phantom of the Opera.” And, his portrayal of Tony in the Olivier-nominated 2008 West End production of “West Side Story” received universal raves.
Adding to the rich sound of Bernstein’s music will be the 150-voice Philly POPS Festival Chorus, which regularly performs with the POPS orchestra, under the direction of Jeff Kern.
After the tribute concerts to Bernstein, Abell will fly back to London, where he will be conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra again. So we won’t see him back in Philly until 2019.