Philadelphia Orchestra’s Eugene Ormandy, 85, Dies
Eugene Ormandy, whose name has been virtually interchangeable with the Philadelphia Orchestra for nearly half a century, died Tuesday.
The maestro who lived with his orchestra as with a lifelong love and who viewed its players as his “musical children,” was 85 when he died of pneumonia in his Philadelphia home with his wife at his side.
Ormandy officially handed over the Philadelphia baton to a younger man, Riccardo Muti, in 1980, but continued as conductor laureate until his death.
He also did occasional guest conducting and as recently as last April had been scheduled to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl, but a recurring heart ailment prevented his appearance.
“I suppose I am the last of the breed,” he told interviewers after his 44 years with the Philadelphia organization had set a world record. And he made no secret of his disdain for the new breed of jet-set musical directors.
“Conductors now hold two, three, even four posts,” he said in 1976. “All over the place...They have to get from one place to another as fast as they can...and at the very end, what did they gain? They don’t have their own children, their musical children...”
As he approached his 80th birthday and final season as music director (1979-80), he was moved to say that his association with Philadelphia’s artists and musicians “has been my life.”
In a more relaxed mood, he would josh about the good fellowship he and his “boys and girls” enjoyed. “I’m one of the boys,” he would say, “no better than the last second violinist. We are all musicians. I’m just the lucky one to be standing in the center, telling them how to play.”
Under Ormandy and his predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphia Orchestra came to be a world-class musical ensemble, called by Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times “probably the greatest virtuoso orchestra of all time.” The “Philadelphia sound” was familiar to music lovers around the globe, and that sound was distinctly Ormandy’s.
It was said that in Ormandy’s time more people had heard the Philadelphia sound than that of any other symphony orchestra. The Philadelphia was held to be the world’s most traveled and most recorded symphonic organization. The musicians were kept so busy, in fact, that the Philadelphia became the first (in 1963) to offer its players a full 52-week contract, according to Louis Hood, former longtime public relations director for the orchestra.
The group toured widely and added something like 400 long-playing records to the musical catalogues under Ormandy’s direction, garnering three gold records and two Grammy awards along the way.
In addition, Ormandy guest-conducted many other major orchestras that, legend has it, then began to emit the “Philadelphia sound.”
Asked to define that sound, Ormandy would respond matter of factly: “C est moi.” (It’s me.) Not everyone along the way thought so. Some early critics were loath to give Ormandy that credit, saying he inherited the rich sound from Stokowski.
Ormandy vowed to continue that great tradition when he succeeded Stokowski in 1936. “I could not permit it to be said that the reputation of the Philadelphia Orchestra was declining under my direction,” he once told an interviewer.
“But the Stokowski sound and the Ormandy sound were not the same,” he said. “I gave greater emphasis to the strings.”
If, in the words of Hood, “Stokowski put the orchestra “on the map,” Ormandy kept it there and brought it even greater fame. By the time he stepped aside all 106 players in the orchestra had been hand-picked by Ormandy. The sound was undeniably his.
Ormandy hadn’t always been standing in the center, telling others how to play. He once was the last second violinist in a movie theater pit orchestra in New York City. It was a long way from Budapest’s Royal State Academy of Music and his Wunderkind days as a budding concert violinist, but the job paid $60 a week and he was glad to get it.
It was 1921 and Ormandy was 22, broke and abashed that the U.S. concert tour for which he had crossed the Atlantic with such high hopes had collapsed before he ever set foot on a stage.
The two young fellow Hungarians who lured him into the ill-starred journey with a proposed package of 300 concerts at a fee of $30,000, proved to have more enthusiasm than experience. The best offer they could muster was for three Carnegie Hall concerts if they would put up $4,500 to defray costs.
This experience prompted Ormandy to quip in later years that he was “born in New York City at the age of 22.”
Ormandy actually was born Jeno Blau in Budapest on Nov. 18, 1899, the son of a prosperous dentist with a fixation that his first-born son be a concert violinist. The boy was named Jeno (Eugene) after the reigning Hungarian violinist of the day, Jeno Hubay. At the age of 3 he was given a tiny fiddle and at 5 he was accepted as a pupil at the Royal State Academy--where Hubay taught. At 9, he played before the emperor, Franz Josef.
In later years, Ormandy, who adopted that surname after settling in America, recalled that his father beat him to make him practice the long hours required. By all biographical accounts, he became the academy’s youngest graduate, receiving a diploma before he was 14.
A short tour of Germany and Hungary, both as concertmaster and soloist with an orchestra, went well, and in 1920 he toured Austria and France with equally encouraging results. He decided to go to America.
Thus it was that he was walking the streets in New York with his Balestrieri violin and no prospects when he bumped into a Hungarian opera singer he knew who asked what he was doing there. “I’m starving, that’s what I’m doing,” Ormandy replied.
The friend took him to see another compatriot, Erno Rapee, who was conductor of a highly regarded house orchestra at the Capitol Theater. Ormandy auditioned on the spot, playing the Kreutzer Sonata from memory. The conductor was astounded and told the young virtuoso, “You don’t belong here.” But he gave him a job anyway and assigned him to the last desk of the second violins.
Within a week the talented young violinist was advanced to concertmaster, a post he held for 2 1/2 years, playing four shows a day. One day, just minutes before the show, Ormandy was told that the conductor was ill and that he would have to conduct. He put on a cutaway coat and conducted the entire performance from memory.
The diminutive (5 feet, 5 inches) young musician with the shock of reddish-blond hair soon became a familiar figure on the podium of the Capitol and in time became full-time associate director of the orchestra. He also began attending rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic to watch the great Italian maestro, Arturo Toscanini, at work.
Toscanini was to become the catalyst in Ormandy’s big moment, the turning point in his career. That moment came a few years later, after Ormandy had left the Capitol and availed himself of the managerial services of Arthur Judson, who established him as a symphony conductor.
For Judson he conducted the Philharmonic in Lewisohn Stadium in 1929. The next year he stood before the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time in its summer season in Robin Hood Dell and was invited back the next summer for seven concerts.
The big moment came in the fall of 1931. Toscanini and Stokowski had agreed to swap guest appearances a few times during the regular season. A sudden illness caused Toscanini to cancel a scheduled series of appearances in Philadelphia, and Ormandy was asked to stand in--only after several other conductors had turned down the offer. Who, after all, wanted to risk “artistic suicide” by replacing Toscanini on Stokowski’s podium?
Ormandy, over Judson’s objections, said he would. “I had an awful lot of nerve,” he recalled later.
His success led to an invitation to replace the ailing Henri Verbruggen as conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Ormandy held the post until 1936, when he was asked to return to Philadelphia as successor to Stokowski.
Once, after he had established his reputation as a conductor, Ormandy was asked to direct a special performance of the Budapest Philharmonic with another expatriate, violinist Joseph Szigeti, as guest soloist. It was an honor and a triumph to relish in one’s homeland. And Ormandy’s father was in the audience.
After the concert, on the way to a party honoring the two guest musicians, his father was glum.
What was wrong? Hadn’t he liked the concert? the son asked. At last, with tears in his eyes, the old man said, “I couldn’t help thinking that if I had only beaten you a little harder, perhaps you would have been playing the violin, and Szigeti conducting.”
Ormandy’s six years in Minneapolis had broadened his and the orchestra’s reputations considerably. Even so, to take the baton from a luminary like Stokowski was “one of the most perilous assignments that (could) befall a conductor,” wrote Roland Gelatt in his book, “Music Makers.”
“To rescue an orchestra from mediocrity, as Ormandy did in Minneapolis...does not entail much risk,” Gelatt wrote. To step into Stokowski’s shoes and invite comparison does. “He was essentially a prosaic conductor..thorough, dependable...playing Horatio to the volatile Hamlets in New York, Boston and Europe.”
Then, according to Gelatt, about the time of his 50th birthday, “he began to assume stature as an interpreter with ideas of his own..To the surprise of many, the mater-of-fact Philadelphia drillmaster showed every sign of becoming an artist of consequence.”
He had his critics. Martin Bernheimer, Los Angeles Times music critic, wrote in 1979, “even in his prime, Ormandy could be accused of a certain lack of interpretive profundity. But no one could deny that, under his reliable guidance, the Philadelphia Orchestra reminded one of the music wonders of the world for more than four decades, setting international standards of brilliant, opulent, cohesive orchestral sound.”
In an assessment of Ormandy in his book, “The Great Conductors,” Schonberg spoke of the “singular reluctance in musical circles to admit him to the ranks of the great conductors,” despite the fact that the Philadelphia was “commonly held to be the greatest virtuoso orchestra in the world.”
“Part of the trouble is ironic,” he wrote. “It stems from the rich sounds made by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Many critics and listeners still have a pronounced streak of Puritanism, and instinctively distrust such volumptuous sounds. Can anything so lush have probity?”
He quoted Ormandy’s own assessment of the sounds produced by his conducting. “My conducting is what it is because I was a violinist, Toscanini was always playing the cello when he conducted, Koussevitzky the double bass, Stokowski the organ. The conductors who were pianists nearly always have a sharper, more percussive beat, and it can be heard in their orchestras.”
That Ormandy had a way with his “children” was known to legions of performers who faced his baton on stages over the years.
One summer in the Hollywood Bowl--it was 1948--Ormandy was rehearsing the massive forces needed to perform the Mahler Eighth Symphony, dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand.”
On stage were seven celebrated soloists, an augmented orchestra, a brass choir, organist, boys choir and several hundred amateur singers drilled in advance for the two adult choruses required for the monumental work.
More than once Ormandy had to pull these awesome forces to a halt when Metropolitan Opera tenor Charles Kullman tripped over a particularly tortuous solo passage.
After one such halt, Ormandy smiled up conspiratorially at the sea of amateur singers, “You see?” he said, “even great tenors make mistakes.”
In 1973, Ormandy’s organization became the first U.S. symphony orchestra to visit the People’s Republic of China. Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Tse-tung, made a rare public appearance. Wearing Western dress in deference to the Americans, an act almost unheard of at that time, she attended one of the concerts. Afterward she told Ormandy:
“Thank you for this concert. we are old friends. You supported us in the ‘40s and we are grateful. China does not forget her friends.” She was referring to a China relief concert the orchestra played under Ormandy in 1940.
While in Peking, Ormandy attended a rehearsal of the Philharmonic Society of the People’s Republic. At the end of the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, the group’s conductor courteously asked Ormandy to conduct the andante.
“I spoke no Chinese, nor they any English,” Ormandy recalled in a 1980 interview with Los Angeles Times music critic Daniel Cariaga, “but with beating and singing and pantomime, we were able to rehearse. Some of my players, who actually made me do it, said, ‘Of course he was able. He doesn’t use words anyhow.”’ Some of those in the audience that day said the Chinese orchestra subtly began to sound a little like the Philadelphia.
Ormandy’s tenure at Philadelphia was termed “historic for both its length and quality” by Cariaga, who noted after a concert conducted in old age that Ormandy’s “vigor seemed largely undiminished. He never did dance while conducting; he still doesn’t.”
Within a year of stepping off the boat in New York City, Ormandy took out papers for citizenship and, after settling into a job at the Capitol Theater, married a harpist in the orchestra, Stephanie Goldner. Two children were born to them, but both died in infancy. That marriage ended in divorce in 1947.
In 1950 he married Margaret Frances Hitsch, a Viennese who was to be his partner for the rest of his life.
He leaves that wife, two brothers, and--of course--his “musical children.”