by Terry O'Mahoney
Performer, teacher, instrument manufacturer, author, mentor—Alan Abel is all of these things. Abel has performed under some of the greatest conductors of our time including Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, and Wolfgang Sawallisch—all Music Directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has performed most of the major works of symphonic repertoire and participated in numerous world premieres.
As a teacher, his influence may be felt through his students, many of whom may be found in symphony orchestras and universities throughout the world. His orchestral triangles and bass drum stands set new standards of quality. His orchestral repertoire books are standard textbooks in many percussion programs. He has truly created a legacy of excellence in percussion.
Of his induction into the PAS Hall of Fame, Abel says, “I’m deeply honored to be included in the Hall of Fame along with one of my teachers in high school, Haskell Harr; my college professor, William Street; and my former colleagues and mentors in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Fred Hinger and Charles Owen. It also pleases me to be joining Buster Bailey, Cloyd Duff, Vic Firth, Saul Goodman, Bill Kraft, and Alexander Lepak—friends in the symphony category of this fraternity.”
Born in 1928 in Hobart, Indiana, Abel discovered drums at an early age. “My mother was a singer/pianist and my dad was a carpenter, so I combined the two,” he jokes. He wore out a toy drum before being given a snare drum at age five. Music was a very important part of high school life and Abel had a chance to work with some excellent teachers. He performed in a championship high school band under director Fred Ebbs and studied privately with Haskell Harr in Chicago before attending the Eastman School of Music from 1947 to 1951. While earning a performance degree at Eastman, he performed as a parttime member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Upon graduation, he spent two years as a member of the U.S. Air Force Band stationed at Sampson Air Force Base in Geneva, New York.
In 1953, Abel began a six-year stint with the Oklahoma City Symphony, and he taught at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University. His early students included Russell Hartenberger (from Nexus) and K. Dean Walker, who later became the first female principal percussionist of the Oklahoma City Symphony.
While Abel was performing with the Oklahoma Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski appeared as a guest conductor with the orchestra. “Stokowski always made a point of singling out members of the orchestras he guest conducted and praising them in newspaper interviews,” Abel recalls. “The piccolo player and I were the ones he picked during his visit.”
Subsequently, Abel sent a letter to the Philadelphia Orchestra office asking that he be considered for any openings in the percussion section, and included the newspaper clipping quoting Stokowski. Charlie Owen had heard good things about Abel’s playing from William Street (Abel’s teacher at Eastman), and he saw Abel’s letter. When an opening in the percussion section occurred, Owen invited Abel to audition.
Abel won the audition and joined Owen, Michael Bookspan, and Fred Hinger in the Philadelphia Orchestra percussion section. He began as third percussionist in 1959, advancing to Associate Principal Percussionist in 1972. “It’s been a terrific privilege to be in such a great percussion section these many years,” Abel says. “I had wonderful mentors in Fred Hinger (from 1959 through 1967) and Charles Owen (from 1959 through 1972). Michael Bookspan has been a great player for all of my 38 years—45 years for him—and he’s still going strong. Gerry Carlyss graced our orchestra as timpanist from 1967 to 1989, and Tony Orlando started in 1972 and continues the Philadelphia traditions in a grand manner. In 1989, Don Liuzzi started his journey in the realm of Philadelphia sound and music making. I’ve had a wonderful time with all of them.”
“The 38 years I worked with Alan were both rich and rewarding,” says Michael Bookspan. “I will always consider Alan to be an extraordinary percussionist, colleague, and friend.”
In addition to performing, Abel served on many committees of the Philadelphia Orchestra including the Members Committee, the Artistic Advisory Committee, the Conductor Search Committee, and the New Hall Committee—which will culminate in the opening of the new Philadelphia Concert Hall in 2001. He was also the 1988 recipient of the C. Hartman Kuhn Award for “enhancing the standards and reputation of the Philadelphia Orchestra.” Abel also served on the PAS Board of Directors from 1987–1994.
Abel retired from the Philadelphia Orchestra on September 15, 1997. A retirement party was organized by Philadelphia Orchestra timpanist Don Liuzzi on June 7, 1998. It was a historic gathering of 160 orchestral colleagues, former students, friends, and staff of the Philadelphia Orchestra. During the party, a video titled Philadelphia Sounds was shown, which featured timpanist Oscar Schwar; percussionists Benjamin Podemski, Michael Bookspan, Fred Hinger, and Charles Owen; and conductors Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, and Wolfgang Sawallisch; as well as archival footage of Abel performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Several world premieres, including “Suite for Tambour Militaire” by Maurice Wright and “Transformations for Flute and Marimba” by Gregory Zuber were performed. Other works were performed in tribute to Abel by a who’s who of the percussion world—Russell Hartenberger, John Wyre, Greg and Pat Zuber, Matthew Strauss, Douglas Wallace, Angela Zator, Ted Atkatz, Chris Deviney, Brian Del Signore, Dave DePeters, John Shaw, Brent Kuszyk, Will Hudgins, Brian Prechtl, Brian Jones, Harvey Price, Rolando Morales-Matos, Michael Udow, Doug Walter, Bill Cahn, Douglas Howard, John Rudolph, and Richard Brown.
A successor has yet to be named, so Abel continues to perform with the orchestra part-time. “I played nearly half of last season and will play part of this season and the three-week tour of Asia,” he says.
Teaching has always been a part of Abel’s life. He continued the tradition he began in Oklahoma by teaching high school students at the Philadelphia Settlement School. One memorable experience was a percussion ensemble (one of the first in Philadelphia) whose members included Russell Hartenberger, John Soroka, Mark Sunkett, William Cahn, Albert Hobbs, Richard Brown, Glenn Steele, Nick Cerrato, and Michael Udow.
In 1972, he began teaching at Temple University. “I began teaching upperclassmen but as the graduate program developed and grew, I gradually began teaching the Master’s students” he says. “Glenn Steele teaches the undergraduates and is the percussion program director at Temple. He has been a great colleague and a wonderful support system for me for over 25 years.”
Abel continues to work with graduate students today. Many of his former students currently perform with symphony orchestras in Albany, Barcelona, Boston, Buffalo, Chautaqua, Charleston, Chicago, Columbus, Delaware, Detroit, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Harrisburg, Honolulu, Houston, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Malaysia, Melbourne (Australia), Metropolitan Opera (NYC), Mexico City Opera, Minnesota, Naples (Florida), New Orleans, New World (Miami), New Zealand, Norfolk, Oklahoma City, Perth (Australia), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe Opera, Scranton, Tampa, Toledo, and Toronto. Abel’s former students have taught at Arizona State, University of Colorado, Curtis Institute, Indiana State, Juilliard, New England Conservatory, Oklahoma City, Rice, Temple, Delaware, Michigan, and the University of Toronto.
During the 1970s, Abel compiled and edited two books of orchestral studies for timpani and percussion, published by G. Schirmer. “There was a whole series of books on every instrument in the orchestra; the percussion instruments fell to me [to compile],” remembers Abel. They have become standard textbooks in many percussionists’ libraries.
Many percussionists have a connection to Abel through one of their instruments: the triangle. For 35 years, Abel has manufactured 4-inch and 6-inch orchestral triangles that produce a clear, bright sound found very desirable by percussionists. “My predecessor in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jim Valerio, had the best triangle,” Abel says. “He let us use it for a year or two. When he wanted it returned, I decided that we had to replace it.”
Abel says that particular triangle “was made from a knitting mill spindle from New England by the Walberg Drum Company. They bought used spindles from old knitting factories and bent them into triangles in a variety of different lengths and sizes.” But Abel could not locate any used knitting spindles. “I took the dimensions of that triangle to an engineering company and had them vary it. I had a dozen different sizes made, picked the one that sounded the best, and had a couple made. People heard about it and wanted some. I found several small shops that could do the various steps, because it was too high-tech for me to do in my basement. I began by having twenty triangles manufactured, and now it’s six hundred at a time!
“I’ve just developed a new model called the Wagner/Mahler triangle, which is meant to cut through with a big and ringing tone when the orchestra is playing fortississimo. The size is not Philadelphia Orchestra Percussion Section 1959–1967 all that different from the 6-inch symphonic triangle, but it is a heavier material. When you have to play loudly in the orchestra, and you’re playing something by Mahler or Wagner and you have to cut through, it does it.” The new triangles will be available through specialty percussion outlets.
Abel proved to be a instrument-design pioneer through the development of his “suspended” concert bass drum stand. “In the early 1960s, Dan Hinger and I were tapping on a kettledrum and bass drum when we were hand carrying them backstage at the Academy of Music,” Abel recalls. “We noticed how free and full the sounds were. That started the process of development of a bass drum stand using a square pipe frame and rubber bands from Michael Bookspan’s trampoline. The final result was a bass drum suspended by rubber, on a ring that swivels. It’s used in most of the symphony orchestras and many of the universities and schools in this country.” Abel was the first to develop this “free-floating” concept, one that has been copied by many percussion manufacturers today.
When he is finally able to “fully retire” from the Philadelphia Orchestra, he plans to continue teaching at Temple University, expand his instrument manufacturing areas, write some books, and produce educational videos and compact discs. “Within the year, I hope to record a CD of orchestral repertoire for percussion and timpani with Don Liuzzi,” says Abel, who shows no signs of slowing down.