It’s time for Sony to put together a 21st-century tribute to what is arguably the greatest orchestra ever to come down the pike. Not a tribute to Eugene Ormandy per se, but to the orchestra he led as “The Boss” for more than 40 years—the Philadelphia Orchestra—which in terms of ensemble virtuosity, as its recordings from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s readily attest, was without equal then, or at any time in the history of music.
You may think it odd, but this love letter to Philadelphia’s orchestra starts out in Baltimore, where I grew up. In the 1960s, the Philadelphians were regular visitors to Baltimore. They played six concerts a year in the Lyric Theater, taking the train down from Philadelphia in the afternoon and going back at night after the concert. As I would later learn, hearing them in the Lyric Theater was much better than hearing them at home in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, where the acoustics were terrible. When the Philadelphians played in Baltimore, the famous “Philadelphia sound” was on full display. So too was a level of virtuosity and confidence that made my teenage heart race with excitement. This was decidedly one of the world’s great orchestras—powerful and virtuosic as only an American orchestra could be back then, with a sound that was absolutely unique. Ormandy conducted about half of the run outs, and various guest conductors did the rest. It was at these concerts that I heard, for the first time, Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa, David Zinman, and István Kertész, among others. Not a bad education.
Like the newly hatched bird that “imprints” on the first creature it sees, and regards that creature ever after as its mother, I imprinted on the Philadelphia Orchestra—and 55 years later I still carry its sound around inside of me.
I continued to follow the Philadelphians as a student at Yale during the early 1970s. At the time, New Haven hosted the orchestra once a year in the fall, when it typically went on a tour of New England. It wasn’t easy to get tickets to these concerts, and once I tried to sneak in without one. I borrowed a cello case from a friend who was a student of Aldo Parisot, put on a hat and an adult-looking raincoat, and walked in the backstage entrance at Woolsey Hall, hoping to pass for a member of the orchestra. I was immediately stopped and thrown out. But I sometimes succeeded in getting a ticket legitimately (and thus heard one of the first American performances of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony), and was usually successful in slipping into the hall when Ormandy and the orchestra were doing sound checks before a concert. For one of these I hid on stage just out of Ormandy’s sight, next to the back stand of the second violins, and got to hear him and the orchestra work on the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth.
Within a few years I became music critic of The Washington Star, and from that point on I was paid to listen to the Philadelphians and sit in the best seats in the house. While the Kennedy Center was not as flattering a venue as the Lyric Theater had been, it was still a lot better than Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, and by now I was beginning to understand the reason—the Academy of Music was actually an opera house, built in 1857, with all the wrong qualities for a concert hall. Fritz Reiner, who taught at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in the 1930s, was once quoted as saying, “The Academy has very good acoustics although somewhat dry. It is like an Italian opera house.” That was way too generous. The Academy is in fact, and always has been, bone-dry, as I heard for myself on several occasions in the 1980s, including one night when Riccardo Muti led the Philadelphians in a concert performance of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, and the great fortissimo chords in the orchestra sounded like sticks snapping. Pierre Monteux got it right. “This hall,” he said, “is too dry; the tone stops instantly. The sound should have a more flattering carry-over.”
The dryness of the Academy of Music contributed, in a perfectly logical way, to the amazing sound of the Philadelphia strings: they were forced to compensate for it by using more bow and a tremendous amount of pressure and, in pizzicato passages, using the fleshiest part of the fingers. Ormandy would even ask his players to begin their vibrato before sounding a note, as at the start of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, in order to get the sound to carry. When the orchestra played in any other hall, the strings sounded absolutely luxurious. But at home, everything was dry as dust.
This was the problem faced by the recording engineers and producers who worked with the orchestra. It was not such a big problem in the age of monaural recording (up to the mid-1950s), but once stereo became the standard, the dryness of the hall became painfully noticeable. The inescapable reality was that, in order to make a decent stereo recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one had to find a hall other than the Academy of Music. But finding a good hall proved to be a persistent problem.
I plan to pick up that thread in a moment, but first, more of the orchestra’s story. Ormandy became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936 (sharing the post with Leopold Stokowski for the first two seasons). By the time he stepped down, in 1980, he had engaged every player in the band—it was truly “his” orchestra. So, who were these players, and what made them so special, apart from the fact that Ormandy had “bossed” every one of them?