PERSPECTIVE — The Eugene Ormandy typographical error in the New York Times archive is a model of accidental poetic truth: The April 1979 announcement of his retirement from the Philadelphia Orchestra said “he will be 80 years old and will have held the post for 94 years.” Your eyes do not deceive.
His 44-year tenure — 1936-1980, the longest in any American orchestra — must’ve seemed even longer after many sleepy seasons with his faulty conducting technique, roughshod treatment of guest soloists, and making unsolicited evening calls to young, female orchestra members. Musicians who played under him say that he wouldn’t have a major career today — if only because his learning-on-the-job background didn’t include conducting complex meters.
Long before I knew any of that, I was baffled by his longevity when first exploring his recordings decades back as an undergraduate. It is said that critics are taught to give Ormandy bad reviews, but I came to it naturally in the isolation of the Southern Illinois University record library. This was the heyday of Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti, next to which Ormandy seemed so medium-voltage. The Hungarian firebrand who came to Philadelphia via Minneapolis seemed to have become a grandfatherly caretaker of a great orchestra. Yet he endured, even after his death — and not just in recordings. When rehearsing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in Philadelphia, Marin Alsop was told by one of the musicians, “We can give you the Ormandy interpretation if you want.”
First question: Was there one? Aside from the super-fast final movement tempos and louder-than-loud cymbal crashes?
The better gift that kept giving was the orchestra’s historic 1973 visit to China. Unlike the New York Philharmonic’s more recent visit to North Korea (which seemed to have no geo-political impact), Philadelphia’s China gig led to ongoing touring and fundraising possibilities that seemed immune to the ups and downs of Sino-American relations.
Documentary footage from that 1973 visit offers perhaps the most convincing explanation of Ormandy’s place in the conductor cosmos. Ormandy attends a rehearsal of a local Chinese orchestra when he is unexpectedly asked to take the podium. Suddenly, his statesmanlike affability disappeared as the Ormandy eyes took on an unshakeable authority, as if he was commandeering all brain cells within the orchestra. Baton technique, congeniality, knowledge…it’s all secondary to eyes like that. But can that be the whole of it?
Ormandy is no mystery to critic David Hurwitz, who is among the better-informed music journalists on the planet, and whose 90-minute YouTube review of Eugene Ormandy: The Columbia Legacy (all of his mono recordings on 120 CDs, made between 1944 and 1958) began with him proclaiming the late conductor to have been a genius of sorts. Ormandy, it seems, has acquired underdog status. Having known many of those recordings on their original LPs and listened to the remastered versions on Naxos Music Library, I came to the end of Hurwitz’s review reminded how these mono recordings show a more vigorous, insightful Ormandy and are an essential part of a legacy whose sheer size must be reckoned with, if only because of its place in American history.
The question is if these recordings are of more than historic interest. Hurwitz’ entertaining, high-energy delivery wasn’t always matched by his words, which were often “What’s not to love?” (praise by default) and “very good.” Is “very good” good enough in an era when the whole of Western recorded music is at our disposal? Maybe, if you’re embracing the total culture of the world encompassed by the box set — a radically different one from ours where Ormandy’s scoring changes, additional cymbal crashes, and cuts are part of the territory. Nicknamed “the solid gold Cadillac orchestra” the Philadelphians represented a uniquely American brand of musical luxury — in a similar spirit to the equally deluxe Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In fact, those two institutions collaborated on recordings of Handel’s Messiah and the Brahms German Requiem. But what once must’ve sounded like a can’t-miss summit meeting of titans can now seem like King Kong meets Godzilla.
From Handel to Wagner, Ormandy was about making big, beautiful sound — a trademark that superseded the particulars of whatever period when the music was written, and accounts for the presence of Wagnerian soprano Eileen Farrell on his recording of Messiah. Though sometimes considered a model of non-interventionist integrity, Ormandy was adapting so many elements to his immediate needs — whether including extra brass in the Sibelius 2nd or performing the German Requiem as well as Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle in English — that the recordings are often provisional in ways that were admirable in his era but explain why many remain unissued in the U.S. since their original LP release. Same thing with his 1960s stereo last-gasp-of-Victorian-gargantuanism recordings of Bach’s Mass in B minor and St. John Passion (the latter coming with a free poster of Jesus).
These recordings have some very beautiful moments that exalt in the sheer power of sound — thanks to the textured, multi-level sonority of Singing City Choir under the fondly remembered Elaine Brown. But any number of moments that would normally call for a retake — a fugue threatening to spin out of control, a soprano audibly straining for high notes — are there for all to hear.
Ormandy was, after all, from the era of a generalists who made music conform to their capabilities.
Niche conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner or even Vladimir Jurowski were unknown, especially in Philadelphia, where the orchestra was the main game in town — competition from touring orchestras was intermittent at most — and served many constituents. Music directors were like mayors: Conducting concerts was maybe 30 percent of the job, the rest being the running of the institution and being an all-around public figure. They were true residents of where they worked — which could easily allow what might be called the Emperor Jones syndrome of unchecked power, though not entirely unchecked. Philadelphia-based soprano Benita Valente turned against Ormandy upon witnessing him browbeating a fellow singer into tears and would pass him on the street without speaking. When Ormandy observed Farrell’s weight gain, the formidable, outspoken soprano observed his shortness of stature.
Work rules were no less sympathetic. On tour, musicians often had to find their own hotels and play long concerts with the Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 as an encore. One explanation for the Ormandy version of the Philadelphia sound is that he liked to keep his musicians busy, which meant lots of doublings (say, second violinists and violists), and reportedly referred to less prominent section players as “loafers.” Was he joking? It’s hard to tell. Ormandy himself conducted at least 100 concerts a year in Philadelphia — and the toll was sometimes apparent. The late Anshel Brusilow, his concertmaster from 1959 to 1966, was relatively kind in his insightful memoir Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy when recounting one of the conductor’s massive memory lapses throughout much of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. He knew the piece, wrote Brusilow, “he just didn’t know it that day.” Of course the orchestra covered for him, but perhaps grudgingly.
The late John Minsker, the oboist/English hornist in 1936-1959, couldn’t abide Ormandy. As a postscript to my 2007 interview with him for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Minsker left an emphatic voicemail message that Ormandy had The Rite of Spring reconfigured in 4/4. Those parts, I’m told, still exist in the orchestra’s archive. But given a blindfold test, I dare anybody to tell the difference in Ormandy’s recordings. Somehow, he pulled it off. And Farrell’s casting in Messiah works well on its own terms. As does a lot of his unconventional casting, such as Eleanor Steber in the Bach Mass and the usually devilish Norman Treigle as Jesus in the St. John Passion.
“All the others were wimps, man!” said the late violinist William de Pasquale (a member from 1963 to 2005). Still, de Pasquale admitted that following Ormandy’s beat meant making his entrance when the conductor’s baton hit somewhere between the second or third vest button.
Ormandy didn’t have to be great at everything. Or anything. Very good was good enough, even when called upon to be a part-time Arthur Fiedler with lighter-weight recordings. And those who puzzle over the presence of composer Harl McDonald (1899-1955) — whose works make Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite seem as good as Mozart — should note that he was on the orchestra’s board of directors, held powerful positions elsewhere, and was always ready to write commemorative works (including a lament over the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby).
His personality had a chameleon quality: In 1952 with the RIAS Orchestra, his Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 had all of the tempo flexibility of still-living Wilhelm Furtwangler, though in the U.S. he was in the mold of the temperamental opposite, Arturo Toscanini. More admirably, Ormandy showcased the lovely Philadelphia brass with an expansive tempo in Elgar’s Enigma Variations, though he was happy to speed up to suit the leaner Boston Symphony in a live performance two years later (1964).
Ormandy, indeed, had strategy.
Each season ended with a party for the musicians, one that he supposedly paid for himself. He maintained a sweetheart relationship with his board — in sharp contrast to his imperious predecessor Leopold Stokowski, keeping the famous Stoky sound but eschewed his movie-star behavior. If Russian violinist David Oistrakh needed to quickly re-record major cornerstones of his repertoire with an American orchestra, Ormandy could deliver — and with few of the ego wars that once caused Jascha Heifetz to suppress a Sibelius recording he made with Stokowski. Ormandy was such a superb accompanist that all of the greats wanted to record with him — though the conductor’s insensitivity drove some away. While recording Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Van Cliburn repeatedly requested long takes while Ormandy repeatedly stopped for corrections. Cliburn stormed away to the playback booth, and from behind the glass, the orchestra members could see Ormandy wagging his finger at his younger colleague. Ormandy won that one.
But there was no winning with Herbert von Karajan.
When the Berlin Philharmonic made a 1955 U.S. tour under Karajan, the Jewish Ormandy declined to shake hands with the reputed Nazi during a post-concert reception. Thereafter, Ormandy was reportedly blacklisted in European cities where Karajan had influence. There were guest appearances in London, Munich and others, but most of his European activities were on tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Chances are that he would’ve maintained circumscribed activities anyway. He didn’t have much to do with opera. And in Philadelphia, he was busy capitalizing on the orchestra’s history of musical firsts that assured he would never get lost in the shadows of New York, Boston, and Cleveland.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Hartmann’s Symphony No. 7, Shostakovich’s 4th, 10th and 15th, and the completed Mahler 10th were all firsts or near firsts. Ormandy went other places where other conductors feared to tread, such as the enigmatic Nielsen Symphony No. 6 that was avoided by others, even Leonard Bernstein. Any problems were steamrolled with the Philadelphia sound, which isn’t a bad option, but not one that wears well next to the more inquisitive temperaments of Simon Rattle and Yannick Nezet-Seguin. And once premiered, these often-problematic works didn’t always figure into Ormandy’s active repertoire. It’s said that he was no great admirer of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, which he recorded once and none too convincingly, though in a recently published recording of the composer informally playing through the piece at Ormandy’s home, the conductor registers no complaints.
Recording-wise, Ormandy’s finest hours (and they’re fine indeed) are the little-known recordings he made upon first arriving in Philadelphia — pre-dating the new Columbia set — when he shared the music directorship with Stokowski between 1936 and 1941. Pristine Classical is re-issuing them in Mark Obert-Thorn’s miraculous remasterings, including the Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Hindemith Mathis der Maler that have everything you could want — vigor, repose, intelligence, and immaculate playing. Competing with a giant such as Stokowski had to have been artistically healthy. These are recordings for the ages. Conspicuously absent is any sense of strategy.
Decades later, though, the orchestra was faced with surviving Ormandy, who (like Karajan in Berlin) was said to have a lifetime appointment. Luckily, Philadelphia had an interesting series of guest conductors, such as Otto Klemperer, Riccardo Muti, Dean Dixon, Calvin Simmons, and Klaus Tennstedt.
What robbed Ormandy of his Indian Summer? There are reports, unsubstantiated but hinted at in published cancellation notices, that he suffered two car accidents, the second of which had permanent effects. He seemed to spring to life when guest conducting other orchestras — up to a point. But it’s possible that Ormandy was a musician who didn’t have a deep European tradition to draw on — what perhaps rescued the infirm Karajan in his later, lesser years, when (as one Berlin Phil musician told me) Karajan wasn’t always good, but he was always an event. Though Ormandy’s post-Philadelphia Orchestra guest engagements reportedly went well, and he seems always to have come through as a concerto accompanist, he didn’t have event status but was like a comfortable slipper that was there when needed.
Staying mostly in one place allowed Ormandy to establish a brand that put him and the Philadelphians in line for its China triumph. But back home, Ormandy had hemmed himself into a stifling comfort zone. Who, besides the Leningrad Philharmonic’s Yevgeny Mravrinsky, could thrive at length under such limited circumstances? Is it possible that no conductor benefits from long-term absolute power?
When Ormandy died, one of the Washington, D.C., radio shock jocks (not not not NPR) announced his death with uncharacteristic solemnity but claimed to have a recording of his very last concert. What followed was a Beethoven work played at half speed. Cruel indeed. But another case of accidental truth?