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Interview with David Charles Abell, Conductor of the 2010 Sondheim Prom

6 Jan

Judi Dench sings “Send in the Clowns”: David Charles Abell’s fondest memory of an unforgettable night

I recently interviewed David Charles Abell, who conducted last summer’s tumultuous Sondheim Prom, for the latest issue of SONDHEIM – the magazine, the house publication of the Sondheim Society. My review of the prom remains one of The Art of the Torch Singer’s most visited posts, so I thought it would be worth publishing the interview here as well. Abell’s insights into Sondheim’s music, his memories of working with Bernstein, and recall of the logistics of an unforgettable evening, are well worth hearing.

SOME ENCHANTED EVENING

David Charles Abell: the brains behind a memorable night at the Proms (picture by Cory Weaver)

As the sun sets on this annus Sondheimus, many events, award-winning revivals and concerts jostle for attention in the memory. But one – Prom 19 on 31st July – really stands out as an emblem of just what this year-long celebration of one man’s work has meant on this side of the Atlantic.

Simply entitled Stephen Sondheim at 80, the evening was at once unabashedly sentimental and joyously affirmatory: a recognition that Sondheim’s work has earned its place in the wide panoply of classical music embraced by the annual festival; and a chance for his British admirers to demonstrate their affection, rising at the end to salute the man responsible for such lyrical and melodic treasure.

Sondheim at 80 was the brainchild of American conductor David Charles Abell, a long-time London resident, who first approached Proms director Roger Wright in 2007 with the suggestion that a celebration of Sondheim’s 80th birthday would be more than appropriate fare for such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic classical music audience. Wright agreed, and over a series of meetings they came up with a format for the concert that would give a sense of the breadth and variety of Sondheim’s work.

Abell’s passion for Sondheim’s musicals was ignited at the age of 16, when he saw the touring production of A Little Night Music in Chicago. “The Miller’s Song” made an immediate impression.

“Get it while you can, basically,” he says. “At that age, when your sexuality was just awakening, it was a very powerful song. The first time a musical gave me a life lesson. Mind you, I didn’t act on it immediately but it stayed with me. As did the whole show: the cleverness of the lyrics, the singing, the beauty of the production, the intricacy of the plot. It’s a work of perfection, I think.

“Then I was in New York [Abell is a Juillard School and Yale University graduate] at the time of Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. Sunday… took me two or three times to get. Now it’s probably one of my favourite shows because it has such personal resonance for anyone who works as an artist. And I saw Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods. I happened to be sitting in the box that she appeared in as the Witch at one point, and she stepped on my toes – ‘Oh sorry, honey’ – as she tried to get into place.”

Ironically, despite a 30-year career as a leading conductor and musical director, Abell’s professional connection with Sondheim’s work had been limited to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (for the Covent Garden Festival in 2001) and some concerts. He had, however, worked for some time as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant in the 1980s – a relationship rooted in his experiences singing in the boys’ choir at the 1971 Washington premiere of Mass, Bernstein’s ambitious allegorical treatment of the liturgical structure, and as assistant conductor on its 1981 revival.

“I don’t think I ever talked to Lenny about Sondheim, which would have been interesting,” he says. “Mass was interesting and innovative – and Steve would probably say, pretentious. And he might be right because Lenny was a pretentious person, in a good way: he was ambitious and wanted to do new things artistically. Steve does as well and they’re very similar in some ways, and of course they worked together years before I knew either of them.

Mass was a great piece of American musical theatre but deeply flawed as well. I think Steve doesn’t have a lot of time for it because he’s about specific characters, specific situations, specific problems, specific goals. And this was about a universal theme, an allegory, although there is allegory in Steve’s work as well, like the archetypal characters of Into the Woods.

Being Alive: Julian Ovenden’s intense interpretation was another highlight of the evening

“But Steve will work from an everyday idea – the Baker and the Baker’s Wife want to have a baby – and take you to a grand theme: sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods, they die. And it’s devastating. And when you get there in the show, it’s shattering. But that’s the brilliance of his work. It will help you to deal with something as a person. That’s why people are so crazy about his work. They’re crazy about Bernstein as well, and the interesting thing about them is that when they worked together on West Side Story, they tempered each other and produced one of the great pieces.”

With his partner Seann Alderking, a musical supervisor and arranger, Abell edited the score of West Side Story for Bernstein, researching the different versions and getting the parts into decent order, clearing up what Abell recalls was “a mess”. More than 20 years later, they would find themselves doing something similar with some of the numbers for the Sondheim Prom – after Abell had been through the difficult process of choosing the programme in consultation with Roger Wright and concert director Martin Duncan.

“In preparation, I listened to all of the original cast albums, even though I knew most of them pretty well,” says Abell. “But now I was listening with a view to what was going to work in the Albert Hall, at the Proms, for people who might have heard Mahler the night before and would hear Mozart the night after. What would they appreciate? What would resonate with them? Which songs would work in a 6,000-seat arena, which has a pretty large reverberation time? Not a patter song like “Not Getting Married Today”, because there are too many lyrics for that space. At the same time, you want to present his most compelling melodies.

“I thought we should present the music in its original form as much as possible. If you hear Mozart at the Proms, it’s likely to be done by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments. So I felt we owed it to the audience to create the theatrical context, use the original orchestrations as much as possible. Another gala might be all about mash-ups, and that’s great. But for the Proms, I wanted to have a sense of being there at the original premiere of these shows. The Follies Overture was the original orchestration from 1971, with a few extra strings, and it was pretty much what you would have heard back then, when they had big orchestras – around 30 players. We only have 21 on Love Never Dies [Abell is the Lloyd Webber show’s musical director] – and that’s the biggest there has been in the West End for years.”

But it was a huge challenge. While some of Sondheim’s shows have been edited, with scores available in modern, computerised format, others are not in such great shape. As Abell explains, musical scores are often left in the same state as they were at their last performance, full of additions and deletions, musicians’ marks and notes. It’s very hard to find a definitive text. The original orchestrator’s score is not the best source because it might contain wrong notes and rhythms, later corrected during rehearsals, try-outs, previews and tours.

“I knew I couldn’t put that sort of material in front of the BBC Concert Orchestra, so Seann put the parts from some of the numbers [particularly A Little Night Music and Company] into Sibelius, a music notation programme, and created a full score that, in most cases, we were able to compare with Jonathan Tunick’s originals – he allowed me to go and look at them in his New York apartment – and make sure that we were being accurate. Every song took a week to get into shape! We also asked Jason Carr to do some orchestrations on Sunday… The original orchestrations are very small, so we asked him to create symphonic versions and he did a brilliant job. They’re based on Sondheim’s piano score so it is the original sound, just bigger.”

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the evening was the line-up of performers. Abell says they got nearly everyone they wanted, with artists willing to alter longstanding personal arrangements and juggle demanding professional engagements just to take part. Would Bryn Terfel give up part of his holiday? Yes, he would. Could Jenna Russell manage to be at the dress rehearsal, dash across town for a run-through of Into the Woods at Regent’s Park and get back to the Albert Hall for the concert, while making sure her baby was all right? Yes, she could. Would Daniel Evans be able to work around his duties as artistic director at the Sheffield Crucible, which severely limited his rehearsal time? Absolutely.

“It was a magnet, people wanted to do it,” says Abell. “That’s why we had people who would normally be soloists in the West End willing to be in the ensemble. Everyone mucked in, learned the choreography and music. And all the kids from the BBC Performing Arts fund did it for free. We had to ask them to show up at 9am in their concert gowns at the studio in Maida Vale so we could make sure the colours matched. There they were in their high heels. It was a collaboration, and that’s the joy of working with great people. They bring things you wouldn’t have thought of.”

So what of the man himself? Abell had kept Sondheim informed during the months of preparation. Most of the artists were established exponents of his work, with the exception of Simon Russell Beale – a personal friend of Sondheim – whose singing ability was already known, and Caroline O’Connor, who Abell had worked with in a production of On The Town at the Châtelet in Paris, and knew would be ideal for “Broadway Baby”. All the same, Abell wonders if Sondheim knew quite what to expect. But he threw himself into the fullest possible day with the zest of someone half his age.

“Steve flew in overnight, arrived at the airport at 6.30am, I guess went to the hotel to wash his face, then came straight to rehearsal where he stayed for three hours,” Abell recalls. “He made some incredibly useful suggestions, mostly to do with his own work – lyrics in the published scores that he wasn’t happy with – and asked the singers to adjust a couple of things. He made one or two remarks about tempo, which were very useful to me. He was just really helpful. He’s a theatre man who knows what’s possible at the last minute, and what isn’t.

“Then he went to his hotel, met some friends, came back to give a talk with me at the Royal College of Music, went and met more friends, came to the concert, then to the party, and met more friends afterwards! I don’t think he slept until two in the morning. What tremendous energy, and what a kind, generous colleague. And that’s what he considers himself to be, a colleague.”

Abell never doubted Sondheim’s right to be the subject of a Promenade Concert. As a conductor whose work has straddled opera and musical theatre, and the dreaded crossover – “I know, it’s a terrible word, but you understand what I mean” – he feels there are apt comparisons to be made with, for example, Puccini. Although from different worlds and times, both men’s strengths lie in story telling, being inspired by the characters and circumstances to write their best music.

“Then, [Steve] can create, have the characters learn something in the song,” he says. “And by teaching them something, he teaches the audience something. So I would put him up there with Puccini, certainly. It’s all contextual, because Puccini was a late 19th/early 20th century Italian from a world where people expressed themselves very differently. Steve grew up in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, and he expresses himself through what he saw and sees in New York society. The contemporary pieces – Company, parts of Merrily We Roll Along, Follies – are very specific to their time and place. Only a hard, successful New York woman like Phyllis could sing those lines, “Leave you, leave you…” But there’s also a universal theme from those situations.”

Abell also never doubted that the evening would work, musically and artistically. He says that from the first rehearsal, the soloists, the direction, the choreography, the orchestra, all gelled. On the podium, he looked from the start – and with justification – like the cat who’d had the cream. And like many among the audience in the hall and at home, the highpoint for him was Judi Dench’s consummate performance of “Send in the Clowns”.

“Not just because she was so great, she sang and acted it so beautifully,” he says. “But from a conductor’s perspective. Technically, it’s a difficult song because you’re always waiting for the singer and you’ve got to come in with the pizzicato on the double bass, on a certain word on the downbeat. Luckily, I had a wonderful principal bass player in Dominic Worsley, who listened to Judi and played at exactly the right moment for her, so I didn’t have to worry about it. That song is difficult, harder than anything that goes fast.”

Abell’s association with Sondheim’s work is about to blossom yet further, with a production of Sweeney Todd in Paris next year, at the Châtelet, followed by Pacific Overtures, in Japanese, in Kanagawa and then, possibly, a Follies somewhere in Europe. But the Stephen Sondheim at 80 Prom will linger long in the memory for its emotional impact.

“It sounds pretentious but what defines Steve’s work for me is the philosophy, and the life lessons,” he says. “I always feel I’ve learned something when I hear one of his songs. Sometimes it’s just entertaining and of course you’re delighted by it. But others resonate and you think, oh yes, that’s my life. By the time he was writing those great shows in his thirties and forties, he understood an awful lot about human nature.”

© Piers Ford

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Concert review: Stephen Sondheim at 80 (BBC Prom 19), 31st July 2010, Royal Albert Hall

1 Aug

David Charles Abell: conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra as it revelled in the original orchestrations (picture by Cory Weaver)

There was never going to be any doubt about the warmth of the reception for Stephen Sondheim when, as eagerly expected, he approached the stage at the culmination of the 19th BBC Prom in this year’s season, conceived to celebrate his 80th birthday. But even he, with his customary humility on these set-piece occasions, must have noted the length of the ovation. The atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall is unique when the audience rises en masse to greet its heroes, and here was London’s chance at last to salute in person this great “playwright in song” (his words, but who could put it better?) in a year packed with performances and festivities to mark this staging post in his life.

Every element of the preceding concert had been brilliantly layered to heighten expectation and nudge up the myriad emotions of the 5,000 or so Prom-goers gathered to honour the composer. And nobody disappointed, least of all the stirling BBC Concert Orchestra with Sondheim specialist David Charles Abell on the podium, revelling in the chance to take some of those famously complex melodies away from the limitations of the pit and, in returning to the original orchestrations, allow them to breathe with new freedom as they soared out across the heads of the promenaders.

In an evening studded with delights, there were two strokes of genius. The first was to partner the great British actor Simon Russell Beale with Daniel Evans – surely one of the finest ever male singers of Sondheim – for the opening number, “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience”, from The Frogs. His comic timing was a joy, and his on-stage rapport with Evans struck sparks. As the evening went on, each of his subsequent appearances (not least in a sublime rendition of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”, when he and Evans were joined by a soft-shoe shuffling Julian Ovenden and, gloriously, that well-known twinkletoes Bryn Terfel) should have had producers wracking their brains for revival ideas to showcase this hitherto unexplored side of his career. What a fabulous Buddy he would make in Follies.

The other moment of genius occurred at the start of the second half when Roderick Elms sounded the first eerie chords of the Prelude from Sweeney Todd on the Albert Hall’s resonant, awe-inspiring organ, and a collective thrill of uneasy delight shuddered down the spines of the audience. There can be no more purposeful passage in musical theatre; it took me all the way back to Drury Lane in 1980 when, from a seat high in the Gods, I was terrified out of my skin by the shrill blast of that factory horn and the mesmerising, darkly funny tale of revenge that followed.

Carolin O'Connor's sassy "Broadway Baby" whetted the appetite for her forthcoming West End run - The Showgirl Within

Evans was quite brilliant in revisiting his success as George, reviving his partnership with Jenna Russell’s Dot for two numbers, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Move On”. There was also a stellar turn from Caroline O’Connor, back in London after a long tour of Chicago down under, and all set to bring her one-woman show to the Garrick in September. Her “Broadway Baby” was sassy and smart, with just the right hint of desperation. And so what if Judi Dench’s “Send in the Clowns” was slightly more wracked than of yore? This best known of Sondheim’s entire-plays-in-a-single-song has never been in better hands and nobody, apart from the maestro himself, was received more warmly by the assembled masses.

The ensemble numbers were triumphant, even allowing for the limited stage room – The Proms Sondheim Ensemble provided well-rehearsed support, losing just the odd word here and there – and “A Weekend in the Country”, another offering from A Little Night Music sent us spinning out to the bars for the interval, full of anticipation for what was to come.

Julian Ovenden and Maria Friedman had already joined forces for a touching “Too Many Mornings” but both really came into their own in the second half: Friedman with Bryn Terfel, making the case yet again for a full-scale revival of Sweeney Todd with these two in the starring roles as they devoured “A Little Priest” with divine timing and characterisation; and Ovenden with “Being Alive”, another of Sondheim’s great ballads, in which he conveyed utterly Bobby’s conflicted state of mind in Company.

The real lump in the throat moment came, however, Glee-style with “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along, delivered by soloists and a chorus from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. They brought this touching, optimistic pop song to life with charming simplicity, setting us up for the tumultuous affirmation of “Sunday” and – the only time when on-stage proceedings looked a little ragged, but who could be blamed when all eyes were trained on the steps to the right, where a flurry of activity signalled the imminent appearance of the man of the moment – finally, “Side by Side by Side”. It was the only way to end an evening that will live long in the memory, and the artists seemed as reluctant to leave the stage as the audience was to wave goodbye to the modest figure who was responsible for everything they had been listening to.