In Philadelphia’s Legendary Sound, A Mutable Truth

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Leopold Stokowski, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1941, experimented with seating arrangements to find different orchestral balances. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives)
Leopold Stokowski, music director from 1912 to 1941, experimented with seating arrangements to explore new balances. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives)

PHILADELPHIA — The very idea of a distinctive Philadelphia Orchestra sound can seem anachronistic. Haven’t most orchestras lost their regional accents? But as the Philadelphia Orchestra opens its 116th season on Thursday with Daniil Trifonov playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 4 (premiered by the orchestra nearly 90 years ago), the famously lush string sound isn’t going anywhere. The sound can change under different conductors, sometimes from one week to the next. Suave and radiant under conductor laureate Charles Dutoit (music director 2008-2012), lean and covert under Riccardo Muti (1980-1992), or put at the service of chamber-music-like intricacy under Yannick Nézet-Séguin (2012-present), the Philadelphia sound is both a matter of civic pride and marketplace branding that’s larger than any single conductor who comes its way. 

Rachmaninoff and Ormandy conferring in 1938.
Rachmaninoff and Ormandy conferring in 1938. (Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives)

Using power of suggestion and conscious engineering, Leopold Stokowski (1912-1938) initiated the concept. He famously introduced unsynchronized bowing and a magical air of conducting without a baton. Sergei Rachmaninoff was hopelessly captivated — the sound always seemed more Russian than Viennese — and wrote his Symphony No. 3 (among other works) for what became known as The Fabulous Philadelphians. Eugene Ormandy (1936-1980) is said to have insured the sound’s continuation by doubling second violins with violas, sometimes too indiscriminately, maybe to cover significant lapses in his conducting technique. With Muti, the sound went a bit underground. As the late, longtime violinist Morris Shulik put it, “He said that when we play Brahms, we should have a Brahms sound. When we play Ravel, it should be a Ravel sound. But all he ever got from us was a Martucci sound.” And we’ll leave it at that.

Wolfgang Sawallisch (1993-2003) restored the sound selectively, in what was considered one of the orchestra’s best periods. After a few rigorous hours of rehearsal, he was known to say, “NOW…give me that Philadelphia sound.” The relatively brief Christoph Eschenbach tenure (2003-2008) is hard to gauge, partly because he often seemed preoccupied with driving the orchestra to the darkest heart of Mahler and Shostakovich. But from his Beethoven — not where you’d expect to hear the Philadelphia sound — came a distinctive honeyed timbre, sometimes sounding more like the Vienna Philharmonic than the Vienna Philharmonic. Nézet-Séguin is the great collaborator. He shows every sign of valuing the sound, but seems to leave that up to the orchestra as he guides the players closer to the letter of the score.

Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall. (Photo by Jessica Griffin/Philadelphia Orchestra Association)
Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall. (Photo by Jessica Griffin)

The sound extends beyond strings. Brasses favor softer attacks. Percussion is more blended. Overall, the sound hasn’t entirely been a plus. Stokowski’s reputation as a charlatan perhaps came partly from a perceived lack of rigor underneath the sound (not true at all, IMHO). Critics referred to “the solid gold Cadillac of orchestras” during the Ormandy era, perhaps implying ostentatious vulgarity. (And, in fact, Ormandy was guilty of not holding back the orchestra in ultra-live halls such as Vienna’s Musikverein, resulting in some poor tour reviews). Whatever happened to the sound under Muti and Eschenbach, there were always frequent visits by Dutoit, who led the orchestra’s summer season at Saratoga for years and seemed to need only step before the orchestra to turn it into an unforced, cool, and clear prism.

Nezet-Seguin values the Philadelphia Orchestra sound. (Chris Lee)
Nezet-Seguin values the Philadelphia sound. (Chris Lee)

How does that happen? Legend has it that when Herbert von Karajan guest conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in 1967, he began rehearsal with long held chords from the repertoire at hand, re-voicing them according to his personal priorities and leaving music director George Szell confounded over how a sound cultivated for decades could be changed within minutes. Another legend has it that Wilhelm Furtwängler only had to walk into a room during a Berlin Philharmonic working rehearsal for the sound to change instantly. I didn’t really believe that until I witnessed something similar. On a Philadelphia Orchestra tour, the Romanian-born then-associate conductor Cristian Măcelaru, whose work I didn’t know at that point, took over a rehearsal from Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra’s sound instantly darkened, confirming certain stereotypes you hear about Eastern European orchestras.

The musicians I’ve talked to perceive nothing magical in this. The late William de Pasquale, longtime Philadelphia Orchestra first violinist, described creating the Philadelphia sound as a matter of using a particular kind of pressure on the bow. No doubt everybody has his or her own physical route to it as part of a larger adjustment to any frequently visiting conductor. (Pasquale, for example, learned to make his entrance when Ormandy’s baton crossed a particular button on his vest). When I first heard current concertmaster David Kim in 2000, he was your typical lean-sounding Dorothy DeLay student. Now, his sound has far more depth. But when he returns to his old competition-winning concerto repertoire, the ghost of DeLay reappears. I like the new version of Kim much, much more.

Wolfgang Sawallisch selectively restored the Philadelphia sound.
Sawallisch selectively restored the Philadelphia sound.

However, my own relationship with the Philadelphia sound has its moments of ambivalence. Particularly with new music scores, I sometimes feel that the Philadelphia sound is a smoke screen for not really understanding the music. In more familiar repertoire, the sound can be a disguise for the orchestra being on autopilot (which is better than undisguised autopilot). Having grown up in acoustically-deprived pockets of the Midwest, I learned a habit of listening past the surface for the musical ideas at hand. The Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache emphatically believed that music isn’t sound, but that sound is only the most obvious manifestation of music. I wouldn’t shout that philosophy too loudly, but there’s something to it. Then again, sound can be a primary source of beauty. And beauty has meaning. For all Pierre Boulez’s compositional rigor, his best works would mean little without it. And maybe Beethoven doesn’t need that honeyed glow. But it’s incredibly nice to have.

Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the U.S. premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in 1916 at the Academy of Music. (Photo: Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives)
Stokowski and the orchestra gave the U.S. premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in 1916 at the Academy of Music. (Photo: Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives)