Sunday, April 4, 2010
Eugene Ormandy : A Tribute 25 Years On
March 12, 2010 was the 25th anniversary of the death of Eugene Ormandy. It was also the 94th birthday of my beloved mother, still active and alert in a suburb of Boston, so I may be forgiven for forgetting Dr. Ormandy until now.
Still, having just remembered the missed milestone -- we measure such things in chunks of 10 and 25 years, it seems -- I did not want to let further time pass without some words about a musician much maligned, whose recordings are nonetheless, everywhere, because they sold so well, on CD no less than on records, and who was really a very fine musician, despite the familiarity that bred so much contempt for him.
There is no lack of authority upon whom to base a sour view of the great Philadelphian: Stravinsky and Klemperer both ranked him first among second rate conductors, but both, too, were infamously uncharitable toward other musicians; Stravinsky also dismissed Koussevitzsky, Ansermet, and Furtwangler, while Klemperer bad-mouthed Istvan Kertesz and Josef Krips, among others.
I am certainly not going to argue with other people's taste; there are musical people who do not like Ormandy for reasons that have nothing to do with popular, elite pressure or the opinions of others in any way. His method of attack could seem weak to those who naturally admired Toscanini. Since I never took to Toscanini's ways, finding him often musically brutal, whatever his technical prowess may have been, that was never an issue with me. Still, Ormandy's less taut approach to music making at times, and his sometimes seemingly casual phrasing, can disturb many. I was among them once, but my opinions of the conductor have changed to allow that he did estimable work in more than the composers I will mention next, for whom I believe he had a special affinity.
If I still enjoy and want to hear tighter, tauter, more sinewy renditions of Sibelius, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovitch, I nonetheless find Ormandy's way with these composers unsurpassed. If his work in the 1st Vienna School has been cause for some of the least kind remarks about him, he still did a very great recording of the Schubert 4th and 6th symphonies that ranks with the very best performances on record -- that of Beecham, a true hero of mine, among them. And his recording of the Second Vienna School, the musical offering that will posted subsequent to this tribute, demonstrates both that he was a musician of secure technical means, and that twelve tone music can be breathtakingly beautiful. That he maintained the Philadelphia Orchestra in peak form for almost 50 years cannot be attributed to the never ending legacy of Stokowski. As his work in Minnesota demonstrates, Ormandy held his own credentials as an orchestra builder; that he chose to keep the "Philadelphia Sound" created by his predecessor largely intact, is no shame to him, despite Ricardo Muti's sneering comments about it. It was a sound well worth preserving. Would that Seijii Ozawa had been as careful with the French heritage of the BSO.
He approached modern and new music fearlessly, in a spirit of service and collegiality, and probably did more for contemporary composers than any other leader of a major American orchestra in his time. Think of musicians associated with him, for many of whom he did first performances and/or first recordings: Persichetti, Lutoslawski, William Schumann, Shostakovitch, Samuel Barber, Roger Sessions, Rachmaninoff, Walter Piston, Prokofiev, Ned Rorem. And the list goes on. Concerto recordings he made with Serkin, Szigeti, and a host of others remain in the catalog not just for the soloists, but for the impeccably musical accompaniment Ormandy gave them. His recording of Three Places in New England is gorgeous, and I recommend without hesitation any of his Ives performances.
Ormandy did not have Toscanini's oversized ego, Reiner's ruthless and even cruel podium manner, the beautiful weight of Klemperer's phrasing late in his career, the sexy buoyancy and rythmic verve of Leonard Bernstein. It is significant, though, that Ormandy anecdotes do not abound; his records sold for their musical virtues not the cult status of the conductor. In fact he is sometimes faulted for not imprinting his personality on the music, for not asserting an Ormandy style. It's an absurd criticism. Ormandy never meant to express HIS personality through the score. He meant, to the best of his ability, to elicit the musical intent of the composer, or, failing that, to produce a compelling and musically intelligent rendering of the score. More often than not, he succeeded.