Just months into their musical marriage, Todd Ellison and the Philly Pops have abruptly parted ways.
The New York-based Ellison, who took up the post of music director July 1, separated from the Pops on Jan. 21, just after the run of Marvin Hamlisch-themed concerts at the Kimmel Center, said Pops chief operating officer Karen Corbin.
Pops leaders would not comment on the reasons for the split, and Ellison did not respond to messages. Pops president and CEO Frank Giordano directed a reporter to a statement saying that the pops had “separated” from Ellison. “We wish him well in his future endeavors,” the statement reads.
The ruptured relationship comes in the middle of the Pops season, forcing the orchestra to line up other conductors to take Ellison’s place on programs he had been scheduled to lead.
The Pops has wasted no time in finding his successor. David Charles Abell is the ensemble’s new music director. Abell made his Philly Pops debut in 2013 and was named principal guest conductor in 2017. He has developed a close working relationship with the Pops staff, which has now been formalized in an addendum to his current contract making him music director immediately and continuing on with a three-year deal starting July 1.
“I started my musical life in Philadelphia, and since 2013 when I first conducted the Philly Pops, it has felt like home. Philadelphia has really warmly welcomed me,” said Abell, 61, who spent part of his childhood in Mount Airy and now lives in London.
His next scheduled appearance in Philadelphia with the Pops is slated for April.
“He has a tremendous rapport with the audience and with the orchestra,” said Giordano, noting the Pops’ seven-year track record of working with Abell. “This past year our Christmas show was just a blockbuster from a performance point of view. Patrons tell me it’s the best in recent history — the energy, the music, they felt the orchestra sounded better than ever.”
Abell says his new title means more frequent appearances with the Pops, already apparent in programming for next season, to be announced Friday. He will lead four of the seven scheduled programs: a Beatles show; another with music of James Taylor, Billy Joel, and others; a Jerry Herman program; and the Pops’ annual Christmas review.
Prior to Ellison, the Pops had been led by Michael Krajewski, who was music director until June 2019. He took over in 2013 after the departure of longtime Philly Pops chief Peter Nero.
Abell is somewhat unusual in the field. Most of his work is outside of the Pops realm. For Opera Philadelphia, he led an innovative production of The Magic Flute in 2017, and this season he is conducting Porgy and Bess with Atlanta Opera and Die Fledermaus with Opera Theatre of St. Louis. He is performing with the Melodica Men and is at work on a recording of 1940s and ’50s 20th Century Fox musicals that is expected to be released in 2021.
In fact, his Philly Pops debut in 2013 was his first time conducting any pops orchestra, “and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it,” he said. “Conductors don’t grow up thinking, ‘I want to be a pops conductor.’ You want to conduct Beethoven symphonies and Mahler, and I want to do that and do more. But when I conducted that first Philly Pops Christmas concert, I just loved it. It stretched me in a way I never expected.”
It wasn’t just the challenge of managing the huge forces on stage — orchestra, choruses, guest vocalists, Santa Claus — “but I had to figure out how to make it into a great evening of holiday entertainment. It was a huge challenge. It’s intimidating. When you go to Juilliard, they don’t teach you how to talk to an audience.”
He’s a quick study, though. Asked when discussions started regarding his going from principal guest conductor to music director, Abell demurred — charmingly.