Rachmaninov, Ormandy, Stokowski…and Nézet-Séguin. Julian Haylock looks at, and listens to, the dazzling glories of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a few of the great conductors at its helm
Few orchestras can boast a single popular epithet, yet under the guidance of its longest-serving music directors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia not only won universal approval as those ‘Fabulous Philadelphians’ but also cultivated what became instantly recognisable as the ‘Philadelphia Sound’. Combining an intoxicating richness and fiery intensity, Ormandy encouraged his hand-picked band of players to play with an emotional openness and superheated virtuosity as though the orchestra was a solo collective. In the Romantic repertoire it generated cathartic levels of excitement equalled only by Evgeny Svetlanov during his tenure at the head of the USSR Symphony Orchestra, yet with an added purring sophistication that the Russians ultimately lacked. The orchestra’s soloistic tendency can be savoured in the classic series of recordings made with violinist Isaac Stern, most especially in the finale of the Tchaikovsky Concerto in which it matches Stern’s thrilling sense of exultant abandonment every inch of the way:
The Philadelphia’s emotional engine is a string section of gloriously unrestrained opulence and intensity. As a former child-prodigy violinist and pupil of the legendary Jenő Hubay, Ormandy encouraged his players to adopt the Hungarian style of playing, combining a relatively high bow pressure with vibrato intensity, whilst exchanging the ‘free style’ of bowing adopted at the time by many conductors (including his predecessor, Stokowski) for a highly disciplined collective in which every player matched their partners exactly in terms of physical execution and tonal production. The in-depth yet highly articulate sonority that resulted – when once asked what the ‘Philadelphia Sound’ was, Ormandy beamed ‘it’s me!’ – is exemplified in a moving account of Barber’s Adagio of Strings of profound nobility:
Founded in 1900, during its helter-skelter early period the Philadelphia Orchestra gave little indication of what was to come. Its founder and first music director Fritz Schell was an experienced conductor who had already formed an orchestra in San Francisco, but his militaristic approach, almost exclusive obsession with German music and wholesale importing of European players to replace home-grown Americans made for an uncomfortable first few years. Following Schell’s death in 1907, the distinguished Italian violinist-conductor Leandro Campanari held the reins briefly before handing over to Karl Pohlig. Despite a penchant for contemporary music that did little to endear him with audiences, Pohlig initially appeared more promising (he conducted Rachmaninoff’s first appearance with the orchestra in 1909), but a well-publicised extra-marital affair with his Swedish secretary made his position untenable.
That might well have been that if a young British conductor (of Polish-Irish descent) hadn’t become suddenly available following his unexpected departure from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: Leopold Stokowski. The Philadelphians took a calculated risk in hiring the gifted 30-year-old, who had only three years professional conducting experience behind him, but in the event it proved an inspired decision, resulting in a 26-year partnership that would see the orchestra catapulted to international stardom.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact Stokowski had on the Philadelphians. After just four years together they gave the American premiere of Mahler’s colossal Eighth Symphony, and in no time his baton-free, often score-free theatrical gestures, his novel orchestral layout with first and second violins grouped together on the left of the conductor and penchant for spectacular orchestral arrangements (most notably of Bach) and ‘improving’ existing scores became legendary. Audiences flocked to see the great man in action, with his characteristic flock of wavy hair helping to create the popular impression of what a great maestro should look really like:
Always a devotee of new technological advances, in 1925 Stokowski made the first major electrical recording of an orchestra with the Philadelphians (Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre) and four years later the first American recording of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, then considered a near-impossibility by most orchestras:
That same year he conducted a legendary recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the composer that signalled a special relationship between the orchestra and the Russian émigré which would eventually result in recordings of all four concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and, most eloquently of all, Rachmaninoff’s sole recordings as a conductor featuring his Isle of the Dead and Vocalise (also 1929) and ten years later, the glorious Third Symphony:
By the time Rachmaninoff conducted that legendary account in 1939, the orchestra had developed fully its distinctively refulgent, full-throated sonority and under Stokowski’s inspired direction had given countless American premieres of contemporary scores, ranging from Copland, Hindemith and Poulenc to Shostakovich, Berg and Respighi. It had also recently appointed Eugene Ormandy its new principal conductor, who had taken over following two years as Stokowski’s assistant. Now in his late 30s, Ormandy was a very different kind of conductor – unflashy, relatively easy-going, and pragmatic – yet he shared with Stokowski a devotion to the 19th-century cantabile tradition and creating an opulent sound of majestic power. His no less vital impact on the orchestra can be gathered from some rare Fox Movietone footage captured in 1949 as he put the orchestra through its paces in the finale of Brahms’s Second Symphony while on tour in Birmingham, England:
The sonic radiance and power that Ormandy encouraged was in part to compensate for the less than glamorous acoustics of the orchestra’s Philadelphia home, The Academy of Music – an 1850s structure intended originally as opera house, which had an unfortunate tendency to absorb rather than enhance the orchestra’s sound. Ormandy also encouraged his string players to use Italian instruments, either from the orchestra’s own collection or via interest-free loans to help enable them to acquire one. Under his direction the orchestra produced an astonishing number of recordings, including world premieres on disc of Prokofiev’s Sixth and Seventh symphonies, Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s Tenth, Strauss’s Symphonia domestica and a defining account of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto with Mstislav Rostropovich.
When Ormandy resigned in 1980 after 42 years as the orchestra’s music director, it was always going to be an uphill challenge for his successor, especially as by now tastes were fast-changing and the orchestra’s ‘fabulous’ sound was no longer so unquestioningly in fashion, especially in the 18th-century repertoire. In the event Riccardo Muti proved an inspired choice, as although he was still willing to give the orchestra its collective head in Scriabin’s sensually eruptive First Symphony, he also encouraged a new Toscanini-style precision, tautness and fizzing virtuosity.
When Muti departed in 1992, it was therefore a much leaner and fitter Philadelphia Orchestra that Wolfgang Sawallisch inherited. As can be gathered from a supremely natural and devotedly shaped account of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, Sawallisch ideally fused Muti’s sense of drama with Ormandy’s clear-sightedness:
In 2006, the Philadelphia became the first major American orchestra to make its performances available for download from the internet, but sadly the necessary chemistry required to wed an orchestra to its principal conductor failed to materialise during Christoph Eschenbach’s relatively brief tenure between 2003 and 2008 – the press had a field day with ‘behind-the-scenes’ sniping. Charles Dutoit stepped into the breach as chief conductor and music advisor for four seasons to give the orchestra time to elect a new music director, although even Dutoit’s presence wasn’t enough to prevent the orchestra sliding towards near-bankruptcy in 2011.
Just as the orchestra’s fortunes appeared to hit an all-time low, Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who had been making guest appearances since 2008, accepted the post of Music Director from the 2012 season, enthusing that the orchestra’s sound ‘is the most beautiful in the world, because it is the sound of the hearts and souls of a fantastic group of women and men, passionately committed to share the most wonderful art form to the widest audience possible.’
Here at last was a young musician, still only 35 when he took up the post, who chimed exactly with the mood of the times and had the necessary energy and determination to take the orchestra onto the next level. When the opening concert of the orchestra’s 2013/14 season at Carnegie Hall was cancelled at the last minute, Nézet-Séguin simply arranged an impromptu concert at the orchestra’s current home venue – The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – and received a standing ovation, following a fun moment on-stage as he took a series of ‘selfies’ with the orchestra while chatting to the audience, followed by a Tchaikovsky encore (the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin) that raised the roof. Clearly the orchestra is now in the safest of hands.