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A Love Letter to the Philadelphia Orchestra

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?

 

They were Jews and Italians from South Philly and New York, WASPS and what-not from various other places on the East and West coasts—a diverse group, albeit reflecting a different kind of “diversity” from what we think of when we use that word today. There was not a single Asian in the orchestra, and of women only a few, including the estimable first-stand cellist Elsa Hilger (the first woman ever to hold down a full-time position with a major American orchestra) and Cleveland native Marilyn Costello, the orchestra’s superb harpist. What the players had in common was that they were all true virtuosos, and that most of them had studied at Curtis before they joined the orchestra themselves. 

There was California-born John de Lancie, who had studied at Curtis with Marcel Tabuteaux, and succeeded his teacher as the orchestra’s principal oboe in 1954. Louis Rosenblatt, a native of Philadelphia and the orchestra’s English horn soloist from 1959 to 1995, also studied with Tabuteaux at Curtis. William Kincaid, principal flute from 1921 to 1960, had studied in New York with the legendary Georges Barrère. Costello had come to Curtis to study with Carlos Salzedo, the virtuoso harpist of the era, while Philadelphia native Norman Carol, concertmaster from 1966 to 1994, had studied at Curtis with the great Efrem Zimbalist, the long-time head of Curtis. Sitting around the podium for many of these years were the four de Pasquale brothers—William (associate concertmaster), Joseph (principal viola), Robert (assistant principal second violin), and Francis (cello)—all born in Philadelphia, all but Robert products of Curtis. And let’s not forget Abe Torchinsky, whose weighty, knife-edged tuba was an “axe” if ever there was one, and Anthony Gigliotti, principal clarinet from 1949 to 1996—both born in Philadelphia and trained at Curtis.

Only one other orchestra in the world, the one in Vienna, had anything like this kind of internal coherence, this sense of “tradition” passed along from teacher to student. What the Philadelphians of the Ormandy years had that Vienna didn’t, and that no European orchestra could match, was stylistic versatility—an ability to play Russian, German, French, and Nordic music equally well, to play Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Bartók, Hindemith, Copland, and myriad others idiomatically and with complete assurance. The Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy made hundreds of stereo recordings—many great, some merely good, none really bad. It is these I hope that Sony, which owns the Columbia Masterworks recordings that the Philadelphia Orchestra made from 1944 to 1968, will now focus on. With Howard H. Scott, John McClure and, later on, Thomas Frost, in the control room, it began recording the orchestra in stereo in 1957. From 1957 up to the mid-1960s, Columbia mainly used the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel (at various times also known as the Philadelphia Hotel and the Philadelphia Athletic Club)—a space big enough for baseball games to be played there. Its acoustics were so boomy as to make it difficult for the musicians to hear each other and to obscure much of the ensemble’s vibrant color. Nevertheless, Columbia was able to produce some stupendous recordings there, e.g. its 1959 offering of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Le Coq d’Or Suite and 1963 track of “The Dance of the Tumblers” from Rimsky’s The Snow Maiden. No one did Russian music better than the Philadelphians—and for sheer over-the-top virtuosity, nothing ever captured on disc can beat their 1961 recording of Balakirev’s Islamey in the Casella orchestration. If the final two minutes don’t bring tears of joy to your eyes, you’re not a musician.

A second venue favored by Columbia’s producers, increasingly so from 1963 on, was Town Hall, also known as the Scottish Rite Temple. Town Hall was a big, mostly windowless building in downtown Philadelphia that had been erected in 1926 and contained a 1,692-seat auditorium. It had a better ambience than the Broadwood Hotel, though it was a touch on the dry side and its sound sometimes lacked weight in the bass. Even with these shortcomings, Columbia’s engineers were quickly able to get excellent results there. Witness the extraordinary recording of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra that Ormandy and the band made in October 1963, one of the greatest accounts of the score ever laid down. Recorded less than 20 years after the work’s premiere, it was clearly an attempt to outdo the 1955 RCA Victor recording by Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, and in fact the Philadelphia strings outshine their Chicago colleagues at many points in the score, particularly in the whooshing sul ponticello passage that generates such a frisson in the piece’s finale. As the recording demonstrates, this was truly an orchestra of soloists. Particularly notable: de Lancie and Costello throughout; the distinctive piccolo of John Krell in the “Elegia”; and Rosenblatt in the “Intermezzo interrotto.” But again and again, it’s the strings that really take one’s breath away. The recording conveys amazing weight in the low strings and a huge dynamic range overall. Everything registers with lifelike impact, including Ormandy’s trademark cymbal crash (not in the score) at the end of the piece. 

Columbia’s recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra present the listener with a podium view—the orchestra spread across the soundstage from far left to far right—in keeping with what American consumers wanted at the time: a big stereo effect. The pickup is close and rather dry, which contributes to a very specific placement of sections and solo instruments. What we now need is a state-of-the-art remastering of this material from the original analog sources, i.e., what Andreas K. Meyer has already done so successfully for Sony with Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic Mahler cycle and, more recently, Sony’s complete box sets showcasing the Columbia recordings of George Szell and Bruno Walter. 

The source material for a Philadelphia project of similar magnitude is quite good, as has been demonstrated by the Sony/Tower Records Japan CD reissues of Ormandy’s work going back at least to 2010. Tantalizingly, in 2018 Sony Japan released a pair of SACDs of classic Philadelphia Orchestra recordings newly remastered by Meyer in DSD. The first featured the orchestra’s glorious 1957–61 accounts of Respighi’s Roman triptych, the second paired its sensational 1966 realization of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition with its 1962 recording of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony.

The recording of Pictures again shows what a truly great orchestra this was. One senses something special from the very first notes: principal trumpet Gilbert Johnson’s clarion announcement of the “Promenade” theme, radiantly optimistic, striding forward with the kind of confidence this great orchestra typically projected whenever it took on a big piece. Ormandy keeps things moving but never hurries, which gives the listener ample opportunity to savor the perfect melding of French and “Russian” qualities that characterized the ensemble’s sonority—the deliciously French-sounding winds, the light and dark colorations of those fabulous Philadelphia strings, the way each of the orchestra’s choirs weighs in with authority when called upon. Every solo lick is delivered with consummate mastery, and the ensemble playing is magnificent, from the muted pianissimo tremolos in “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” to the full-orchestra peroration at the end of “The Great Gate of Kiev,” proclaimed with a thrilling sense of power held in reserve. The recording is splendidly atmospheric and at the same time amazingly potent, giving the listener what amounts to a seat in Ormandy’s lap.

Yes, it’s time for Sony to grab the brass ring. Because the best efforts of artists like Bernstein, Szell, Walter, and so many others now gone, including Ormandy, are worth preserving, not just widely, but well. And because no orchestra in history has ever played like the Philadelphians. 

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