Nothing was real for Leonard Bernstein unless he shared it, according to David Charles Abell.
Now the Philly POPS principal guest conductor will share Bernstein’s legacy with a concert spanning the career of the esteemed Jewish composer, who would have been 100 in 2018. Abell will conduct three performances of “Lenny’s Revolution,” Feb. 2 to 4 at the Kimmel Center, which will include pieces from Bernstein’s Broadway repertoire such as West Side Story, On the Town and Candide, alongside Broadway vocalists and the 65-piece POPS orchestra.
The performance is part of a citywide tribute to Bernstein, led by the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), which will open its Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music exhibition in March.
Ivy Weingram, curator of the NMAJH exhibition, will speak about Bernstein’s career and legacy on the Kimmel Center’s Plaza Stage prior to the Feb. 4 show.
For Abell, leading this performance has many personal connections, as he studied and worked with Bernstein starting at a young age.
“It’s really because of him that I’m in music at all,” said Abell, a Philadelphia native who’s lived in London for 22 years, where he was preparing for a concert of Bernstein’s more symphonic pieces in the city’s celebration of the composer.
The Philadelphia program also includes selections from Mass, which has even more personal meaning for Abell.
When he was 12, Abell was chosen to sing in the boys choir of Mass, a theater piece written for the Kennedy Center in honor of John F. Kennedy, during its premiere in 1971.
Its creation speaks to the revolutionary nature of Bernstein’s music, as well as the title of the POPS performance.
“It’s a Catholic mass written, of course, by a Jewish composer in memoriam of a Catholic president who was a friend of his and it actually is not a mass in a liturgical sense, it is a theater piece that tells a story,” Abell said. “So already that is a revolutionary concept and it was made more revolutionary by the fact that he included different styles; there’s a classical style, there’s jazz, there’s rock ’n’ roll.”
Abell was later asked to be the assistant conductor on the 10th-anniversary production of Mass at the Kennedy Center, which was conducted by his own teacher. A year after that, a production was planned in West Berlin and Bernstein asked Abell to go there to conduct the performance.
“That was, in fact, my professional conducting debut, so already Mass and Bernstein had just sort of an almost — it was almost like destiny in my life,” Abell said. “So I feel like I’m coming full circle now.”
The Philly concert will also showcase Bernstein’s “madcap” humor through his Broadway pieces.
It’s a side of Bernstein, who was dubbed lifetime laureate conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Abell knew quite well through working with him, including his work editing West Side Story, among other pieces.
“He was sort of a larger-than-life character, as you can imagine,” Abell recalled. “Not only a great musician but also a great intellect.”
Bernstein, who studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, loved wordplay. He would have dinner guests make anagrams from long words, “and he was really good at it,” Abell said. “He was better than everyone, so he always won that game.”
He was also experimental in his music. He could write a ballet — as he did three times with West Side Story collaborator Jerome Robbins — as well as an opera or symphony.
“That’s part of what he did, too, always pushing the boundaries,” Abell said. “The music I’m doing this week is extremely hard to perform. You’ve got to be on your toes. It stretches all of us, and yet it’s enjoyable for the audience, so he really wanted it all. He wanted to entertain but also to challenge, and West Side Story does that. His concert pieces do that. His TV shows do that.”
From Bernstein, future generations can learn to follow their instincts. He was originally discouraged from creating music for Broadway and conducting music and veering away from his classical roots, but that didn’t stop him.
It was about the joy of music, Abell said. Enough so that Bernstein even wrote a book titled The Joy of Music.
“He wanted to make music accessible to the largest number of people, and that’s something we still need to do,” Abell said. “There’s no reason that everyone can’t enjoy a Beethoven symphony or a Broadway show.”
Abell and the POPS have many tricks up their sleeve for the Philly performances — the last of which will take place before the Super Bowl begins, so don’t let that deter you — and he looks forward to sharing Bernstein’s music with the audience.
“He was at heart an educator, and he loved nothing more than to share the music that he loved with the public.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0740