‘Lenny’s Revolution’ will be on stage at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The show is a tribute to composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, best known for ‘West Side Story.’
Leonard Bernstein left an indelible mark in the world of theater. David Charles Abell knows this first hand and can’t wait to share Bernstein’s “genius” this weekend.
The Philly POPS will join in a nationwide tribute to composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein to mark 100 years after his birth by presenting Lenny’s Revolution, Friday through Sunday, Feb. 2–4, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce streets.
Bernstein, most well known for West Side Story, Candide and On The Town, studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. The city of Philadelphia helped shape the career of Bernstein, much like his protege, Abell, who will be the Philly POPS principal guest conductor for Lenny’s Revolution.
Abell, a resident of London for the past 22 years, credits his introduction into the music world in Philadelphia for his successful career. He spent the first four years of his life in New York City until his family decided to move back to Philadelphia, where his mother’s family was from.
Abell may have spent only eight years of his life in Mount Airy before moving onto other cities, but what was the beginning of a remarkable career started in Philly. He attended Germantown Friends School from kindergarten through sixth grade and spent a great deal of time performing in the local Episcopal Church choir.
At the age of 8, Abell joined the church choir, which he said, “introduced me to music.” This choir was composed of men and boys so it was expected of the young gentlemen to act professional at a young age. Not only did Abell sing, he was taught how to read music and play various instruments, which would help shape his future as a conductor.
At Germantown Friends, Abell started playing the trumpet for a couple of years, until the orchestra director recognized the need for more violas. The viola and trumpet have nothing in common, but nonetheless, Abell accepted this new role, which he said really helped his career without recognizing it right away.
“The viola is a great instrument for a future conductor to play because you’re in the middle. You’re underneath the violins and above the cellos, so you’re listening into the middle of the music,” said Abell. “You’re listening to the harmony and the interior and that’s a good skill for a conductor to have.”
Abell lived in Philadelphia only until the age of 12, but year 13 of his life is when he would meet Bernstein.
Abell was in a summer program called Berkshire Boy Choir, in which kids from around the country auditioned for this prestigious group. Abell made the cut.
In the summer of 1971, Abell and the group performed all over the East Coast. At the end of the summer, half of the kids selected from the choir were chosen to go to the newly built Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to perform in Bernstein’s Mass. Abell was one of those selected to perform in this historic show.
Bernstein had been close with the Kennedys and had even performed at the White House. Jackie Kennedy asked Bernstein to write a piece in memory of her husband, and he accepted.
Since President Kennedy was Catholic, he decided to write a piece called Mass, although Bernstein himself was Jewish.
“He didn’t write any ordinary Mass that would be sung in a church,” said Abell. “He wrote a theater piece.”
Mass tied in a religious story of a Jesus-like figure, said Abell, with the growing anti-war sentiment that was going on in the United States at that time.
“Bernstein was putting this on stage and mixing it in with the whole spiritual and religious context,” said Abell. “It was very of its time, but it’s also universal.”
Abell, who was 13 during his performance with the play, was blown away by the wide range of music at hand for this specific show.
“I thought this is amazing, what a piece of writing and what music it is, too. There’s classical music, there’s jazz, blues, rock and roll, marching band, blues band, rock bands, there’s hippies singing rock and roll music, and there’s classical chorus, everything is mixed in together,” Abell said. “That was something only Leonard Bernstein could do.”
The next year, Abell had the opportunity to perform Mass once again, but this time in the city he had called home for eight years, Philadelphia. This was a special moment for Abell, and he has the same excitement for Lenny’s Revolution.
“For me to come now and do Bernstein’s music with the Philly POPS is absolutely amazing,” said Abell. “We’re going to include three excerpts from Mass in the concert.”
Mass and Bernstein would continue to play a significant role in Abell’s introduction into the business and actually launch his professional career as well.
In 1982, a producer in Germany wanted to perform Mass in West Berlin, and Bernstein asked Abell to go over to conduct the show. This was an overwhelming step in Abell’s career, not to forget he was only 23 years of age at the time. This ended up being the first show Abell conducted professionally.
Abell continued to work with Bernstein for the next decade on a number of projects, and it is a time he will never forget.
“I wasn’t with him every day, but every time you were with Lenny it was an event,” said Abell. “He was bigger than life.”
Lenny’s Revolution will focus on Bernstein’s Broadway shows West Side Story, On The Town, Wonderful Town and Candide. Abell said he has also sprinkled in a couple of other unique elements to the show. Abell and Philly POPS will do a couple of orchestral pieces, a song from a failed show of Bernstein called 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. about the White House, a song from an opera and three excerpts from Mass.
In addition to the theatrical music, Abell stated comedy will be incorporated into the show.
“He had a great sense of humor,” said Abell. “There’s going to be a lot of comedy in the concert.”
Abell could think of one word that appropriately describes Lenny.
“There’s one word: genius. That incorporates musical genius, comic genius and theatrical genius,” said Abell. “Leonard Bernstein was all of those things.
“If you want to experience genius and have a good time, come to this concert.” ••
For information, visit phillypops.org/lenny
John Cole can be reached at JCole@bsmphilly.com