Conductor David Charles Abell makes his Boston Pops debut in Wednesday’s and Thursday’s Gershwin Celebration, where he will be joined by singers Nicole Cabell and Nmon Ford in the songs “Summertime,” “ It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “ Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “Embraceable You.” Pianist Charlie Albright will bring his improvisatory style to Rhapsody in Blue.
The American-born, British resident Abell is active in symphonic music, opera and musical theater. Known for his television appearances worldwide as conductor of the Les Misérables Anniversary concerts, he is recognized as an authoritative interpreter of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. He talked recently with BMInt.
FLE: As a music theater person, how sensitive are you to the style of the original composers, the style of the period? So many presenters just work in the current style of the day. Do you have strong feelings about period style and what do you about it?
A: Well as it happens I do and I could go into huge detail on this if you wanted.
Well I really am interested…
Let me give you a sort of a quick précis of what I think that we’re doing because it’s actually quite relevant to the concert that we’re doing next week. The Boston Pops has a great history of arrangers and we’re doing two, well several of, we’re actually using two of the arrangers from the Boston Pops stable. So Leroy Anderson, we’re going to open with his medley from Girl Crazy which is a tried and true medley that Arthur Fiedler conducted and that’s been done a lot at the Boston Pops, and we’re doing two arrangements, song arrangements by Don Sebesky, who’s a wonderful modern arranger, who I think grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and has that jazz tradition, that sort of modern-ish jazz tradition. He’s done something very clever in his arrangement of Love Walked In, in which he counterpointed his theme, which is the slow theme to Rhapsody in Blue, with the tune to Love Walked In. So it’s quite wonderful. But all the other songs that we’re doing will be the original theater or Hollywood arrangements. For this concert I have, with my partner Sean Alderking, whom I’ve worked with very often, done a lot of restoration work on what, as far as what we can tell, are the originals; and it’s tricky, because orchestra scores and parts were considered disposable in the 1930s. They were traded like sets of copies. So after the original production was finished on Broadway the producers quite often threw them out! Just out with the garbage. There was no further use for them so many of them do not survive. And for each show the situation is different. Some of our publishers have parts which may or may not have been the original. Scores have been created from those parts, and Sean and I have gone through and edited them, trying to identify what looks stylistically right and what definitely isn’t, because sometimes you have the trombone doubling the oboe all the way through [laughter] and you probably got a trombone from a touring orchestration and an oboe part from the Broadway orchestration. Probably on the road they had to cut the oboe so that’s actually not a very good example. So, for a song like Embraceable You for instance, which has been recorded hundreds of times by all sorts of wonderful artists, all those recordings came in new orchestrations. When Ella Fitzgerald did it, she had her arranger lower the key and slow down the tempo, and it became a torch song, but actually in Girl Crazy it was a medium tempo number which had a dance break in the middle. And we have a set of rental parts which we put into a score and looked at them all together and thought, well, this bit looks like Robert Russell Bennett, and this bit doesn’t, and then I read somewhere that Glenn Miller might have done some of the orchestration of Embraceable You. He was in the band—there was this incredible orchestra, the Red Nichols orchestra which had Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and a couple of other incredible people who just became superstars after that, in the band. So whatever parts they played off of seemed to be lost. The original orchestrator’s score whether it was Robert Russell Bennett or Glenn Miller those are lost too as far as we can tell. So, what we have to go by are these parts from the publisher.
There are no original conductor scores?
Well, conductors didn’t conduct off of scores at that point. Some, well…we finished about two years ago editing a critical edition of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate and we tried to apply the same musicological standards to that show as say the New Mozart edition which was done in Germany starting in the 1950s. And it’s only the second Broadway show to actually be available in a critical edition. But we wanted to set the bar high and sort of make an example for the rest of Broadway, because it’s very hard to do Broadway repertoire in its original orchestrations.
Well there are economic issues there too, aren’t there? Orchestras for some musicals are much smaller now.
Yes. Kiss Me Kate originally had a 29-piece orchestra and probably will never be done on Broadway again with that many players, but since we published the critical edition, the proms here in London have done it live telecast and radio broadcast, and I’ve conducted two productions, one at Opera North in England and one at the Châtelet in Paris, of Kiss Me Kate, and I’m not sure those productions would have happened if we hadn’t published the score. I think it’s going to open up the original version of Kiss Me Kate, for instance, to opera companies and symphony orchestras who hopefully will want to do it. When it gets on Broadway and other theater companies may want to do the 1999 orchestration, which is smaller, but it’s not the original. If you want the original sound, you have to have the original orchestration.
And I should add here that nine of the songs will be done in their original Broadway or Hollywood orchestration. But if you just use what you get from the publishers, you’re taking a horrible risk, because there are no really authentic and accurate orchestral scores for any of these songs. So when I do this repertoire, I tend to create the parts myself.
Well who did the original orchestration of Kiss Me Kate? It wasn’t Cole Porter himself was it?
No, the original orchestrations for Kiss Me Kate were done by Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker. About 50% maybe 65-70%. Walker did 30 or so and a couple of other people [were] involved in a small way.
So what is the role of the Gershwin estate in all of these morphing editions?
That’s very interesting. They announced a couple of years ago that they were going to fund a complete edition of Gershwin’s works with the University of Michigan, and they will be bringing out Rhapsody in Blue fairly soon in the three different [Grofé] versions of which Gershwin approved. Actually the versions are for Jazz band, stock, and large symphony orchestra; we are doing the latter with Pops.
And does the Paul Whiteman version still exist in accurate form? You can hear a rendition 1:20 into this excerpt from King of Jazz (1930); the film has just gotten a major restoration, which is not evident in the clip below.
Yes it does—you can still do it.
And I have been in touch with the estate about possibly doing some work for them, but I’m a little concerned about the sources: whether the adequate material to do complete scholarly versions exists. The Hollywood works survive better. We have complete scores of the songs we are doing on this program, but the Broadway works are much more problematical.
Okay so let’s assume that you’ve successfully created the Urtext for the orchestra to play from. What about the performance style? That’s so different now.
No! It’s really not so hard actually. Anyone who’s heard swing music can do “Too Darn Hot.” Basically, you need a talented jazz trumpet player and a good guitarist and a pianist who knows the style and a drummer who knows the style; but Bennett in particular, well maybe Walker as well, were what you call legit orchestrators. They had five reed players all of whom played saxophone and all of whom doubled on other woodwind instruments. So flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, bassoon and clarinet all figure in various shapes and sizes. They could call on a large palette. Having done it in England and France, I haven’t found it to be too much of a problem. I occasionally have to tell them where to swing and where not to swing and a few other details.
This is my first time working with Boston Pops, but I’m sure the most famous pops orchestra in the world knows its styles.
And what about the singers? The modern Broadway vocalist with a microphone is very different beast than Ethel Merman.
Very true. You have to be careful whom you cast, but if you get the casting right you’ll probably get the style right.
Do you ever do un-amplified musicals?
I did Fiddler on the Roof last summer un-amplified in the 500-seat Grange Park Theater in the UK. The orchestration done by Don Walker about 20 years after Kiss Me Kate works un-amplified because he was the kind of orchestrator that didn’t rely on the microphones to get the singers over the band. He knew when to get out of the way.
And of course the orchestra must have been in a pit in that theater…
Yes, and Broadway theater pits tend to be very covered which makes it even easier.
But still Broadway is now all miked and it’s really kind of a shame.
Yeah, I know, it is!
…and the singers croon rather than project.
So presumably at Pops it’s going to be miked because that’s the style.
Actually we’re using two highly renowned opera singers, Nicole Cabell and Nmon Ford for the four excerpts from Porgy and Bess, and I’m positive they will be able to do the Hollywood songs and American songs as well, because Americans have them in their blood.
Will they be miked for Porgy and Bess as well as the songs?
We haven’t thought about taking the mics off the opera, but I think we’ll have to leave them on, because we’re starting with three Broadway songs before we move on to the Porgy. To take the mics off would feel strange to the audience.
Can you tell us how you came to be invited to make your Pops debut with this concert?
I was conducting Christmas concerts at the Philly Pops for three years, and those events are huge. We have a full symphony orchestra plus a 150-voice adult choir, a 50-voice boy choir, a 50-vooce Gospel choir, an organist, soloists and Santa Claus. [Pops executive director] Dennis Alves came down in 2014 and saw one of the concerts and then invited me to do this. I’m absolutely thrilled to be doing it. The Boston Pops is the pinnacle.
Do you have any favorite singers and pianists from the past for this repertoire?
I’d rather talk about Charlie Albright, the soloist for the Rhapsody. And we have a couple of tricks up our sleeves. Charlie is quite a force of nature. At the age of three, he started improvising on the piano, and he didn’t learn to read music until he was nine or ten. So the whole beginning of his musical development was by ear, and having to be creative at the piano. We’re going to unleash him at one point in one of the songs.
And of course Gershwin and other pianists have improvised in the Rhapsody. Charlie told us in the companion interview that he would be improvising in spots.
Did he tell you that he was going to improvise in the Rhapsody? He hasn’t told me yet! [laughter] Well I’ll just have to be ready!
He will be accompanying some of the songs as well?
He might be doing a bit of improv in the songs, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises with Charlie.
A related interview with Charlie Albright is here.
Gershwin Celebration at Pops
May 18 and 19