Artist Interview: Don Liuzzi on Alan Abel

By Patrick Burke on November 7, 2014

Alan Abel was a Philadelphia Orchestra institution for nearly 40 years. A renowned musician and teacher, he has compiled books of orchestra studies for timpani and percussion; has designed and continues to produce symphonic triangles and bass drum stands which are used throughout the world; and was the recipient of outstanding service awards from the Settlement Music School, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Temple University. Sixty-four of his former students currently perform, or have performed, with more than 50 symphony and opera orchestras throughout the world. Twenty-nine of his former students are teaching, or have taught at universities.

As we celebrate Alan Abel's 85th birthday, I spoke with his former student and current Principal Timpanist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Don Liuzzi, about his relationship with Mr. Abel and the November 16th PCMS concert that has been assembled in his honor.

Patrick Burke:  How did you first meet Alan Abel? Could you describe his legacy not only as a musician, but his importance as a pedagogue and his constant pursuit to improve the instruments and hardware?

Don Liuzzi:  I was in high school and just moved to Philadelphia from Boston asking for lessons. He was full up with his teaching at Temple University, so he introduced me to one of his former students, Sue Jones, who was playing timpani for the Pennsylvania Ballet. When I started as an undergrad with another one of his former students, John Soroka, I was required to buy his triangles and standard equipment as a freshman. I was always looking to him as my choice for a potential Masters degree with Alan at Temple University. John Soroka was such an organized and thorough teacher that I was drawn to Alan as the "primary" source for orchestral percussion pedagogy. I finally played for him while at a party in Ann Arbor that Charles Owen, his former colleague at the University of Michigan, was throwing for the visiting Philadelphia Orchestra. He was very encouraging for me to audition for grad school with him. His thoroughness and constant systematical as well as musical approach to percussion playing always intrigued me. What a mind (as well as incredible hands) he has always expressed.

PB:  Everyone who has studied with Mr. Abel always comments on how much he genuinely cares about each of his students. Could you tell us a little more about Mr. Abel the person, and what is your fondest memory of him in your many years as a student, colleague and friend?

DL:  He is a giver–he holds nothing back, and he constantly bent over backwards to assist in the goal of getting a job and learning the art of percussion playing in the orchestra. He would make sticks for you, loan you cymbals, beaters, help you make practice tapes, etc. Lessons were ALWAYS around two hours, starting with tea, and a humane, caring atmosphere that was also a push towards excellence in all ways–sound time, inner rhythmic nuances. Studying with Alan was like discovering a universe of perfection.

PB:  This is an exciting concert for many reasons, including the amount and diversity of personnel with members of the Orchestra, Temple and Curtis faculties, and the amazing NEXUS percussion ensemble all sharing the same stage. What are you most looking forward to in this concert?

DL:  The musical celebration of that striving for perfection in his work as a player and teacher with a lot of wonderful musicians on that stage will be a joy. The fact that he will conduct and perform is huge–like a musical thank you party! 

PB:  Could you briefly discuss Mr. Abel’s legacy as a pedagogue and his connection with NEXUS?

DL:  Alan's active pedagogy as a percussion ensemble teacher and conductor goes way back to his work in the early 60's at Settlement Music School–which included members of Nexus (Bill Cahn and Russ Hartenberger) and other great players in that generation, John Soroka (formerly of the Pittsburgh Symphony), Richie Brown (formerly of the Houston Symphony and Rice University professor), Michael Udow (recently retired professor of percussion at the University of Michigan) and Matthew Hopkins (Philadelphia-based retired musician). His historical knowledge of percussion ensemble repertoire was hugely influential to Nexus and its growth.

The Alan Abel 85th Birthday Concert takes place on Sunday, November 16, 2014 at 3 pm at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. For tickets and information visit the concert page.