Sunday, April 4, 2010

Eugene Ormandy : A Tribute 25 Years On

November 18, 1899 - March 12, 1985

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.


  1. I couldnt agree more, but am grateful to those who discarded their barely played LPs of his for me to pick up for next to nothing.

    As you point out, EOr was no slouch when it came to performing American music: Wm Schuman's Credendum on Columbia and Ninth Symphony on RCA are two of many favorites of mine; also Honegger's Joan of Arc and V Thomson's Louisiana Story on a Columbia 10" c/w Thomson coducting Mack Harrell in 5 (uncensored) Blake Songs. I posted my own inexpert transfer of this by request last year on another board: for anyone interested here is the link to the flac files and coverart:

  2. I once heard him conduct a program (all Beethoven?) in the 1970's with the student orchestra at the University of Michigan. I remember that the concert was simply fantastic - especially the Leonore No 3. I once saw the performance was listed as being available on a "pirate" tape (though the orchestra was listed under another name, although the "pseudonym" of the Orchestra was related to Ann Arbor, - perhaps "Glen" something?). One of the great pleasures of living in Ann Arbor years ago was having the Philadelphia Orchestra come every year for a week or so for the "May Festival".

    For another aspect, there is the listing of "Ormandy quotes" which appears at - copied down by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Well, Orchestra members must resent the "credit" being given to the guy waving the stick.

    With regard to Toscanini, years ago I heard an interview with Ormandy in which he was asked to "rate" conductors. He replied something like: "First, Toscanini, Second, Toscanini, Third, Toscanini on a bad day, and thereafter, the rest of us." I would love to hear the Leonore 3 from that Ann Arbor concert (and if a I remember correctly, the "Eroica") because they were conducted and played with great drama, intensity and momentum. Yes, Toscanini-like.

    Best regards from over here,

  3. Larry,

    A nice reflective essay on Ormandy. I do recall reading somewhere that many soloists felt he was the ideal accompanist.


  4. Thanks all for your comments.
    Fred: I always loved Ormandy's concerto work, as do even many of those who otherwise dismiss him.
    JSseraglio: I'm downloading your link now. Thanks, looking forward to hearing it.
    David: I should have mentioned that Ormandy was quite capable of hard hitting performances. I did not mean to suggest otherwise. The Minnesota Schumann 4th posted here is eloquent testimony to that.

    Conductors generally felt the same as Ormandy did about Toscanini; Klemperer says about the same thing in "Conversations with Klemperer". I wish I could share their enthusiasm, but he is one of the greats for whom I have very little taste. Reiner, Szell, Rosbaud, and others match his impeccable precision without the what I hear as the brutality and sometime crudeness of his tutti passages. I know it is heresy to say so, but I find his Beethoven set on RCA obscene. Very exciting, to be sure, but at the expense of so much else that is in the music. I'm quite willing to admit that this is a blind spot of mine, but there you have it. And there are so many other conductors whose work I enjoy that I feel no need at this stage of my life to revisit performances I never liked and am unlikely ever to find congenial. Toscanini's manic fury is too often present in his work; I don't know why I would want to listen to his recording of Haydn's Clock Symphony, for instance, when I can listen to Beecham's elegantly turned rendering, or Jochum's, Bernstein's Koussevitzsky's, Scherchen's etc. For me, Toscanini too often turns a loud knock into a hammer blow, and a passing summer storm into a cyclone that endangers the musical balance. It's exciting, as I said, but I believe it is too often a distortion of the music.

  5. I look forward to the 2nd Viennese School posting you mention! I often like Ormandy's work for what seems like "objectivity" for lack of a better term. I have always enjoyed his recording of the first Cooke completion of the Mahler 10th symphony, though most seem to find that recording lacking. I prefer the steadier tempi and phrasing that help keep sentimentality at arm's length and that make clearer some similarities to the 2nd Viennese School composers. Perhaps it's unfashionable because it's in English, but I also like Ormandy's recording of Bluebeard's Castle with Jerome Hines and Rosalind Elias.

  6. Gigh-Fi: Thanks for your comments, all of which I agree with whole heartedly. I love Ormandy's recording of the 1st Cooke completion of the Mahler tenth, and prefer the earlier version to Cooke's rethink. That Bluebeard's Castle is lovely, even if the Ludwig/Berry recording with Kertesz remain the gold standard for me. I'll try to get the record of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern posted this week. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. A wonderful tribute, and thank you for posting it. However, should Ozawa really be blamed for the blandification of the BSO? Leinsdorf deserves much of the blame, in my opinion. Compare the Beethoven 1st piano concerto recordings under Munch (Richter, 1959) and Leinsdorf (Rubinstein, 1966) for a striking example.

  8. Thanks for your comment. You are right that Leindsdorf began the "blandification" (great word, by the way!) of the BSO. Ozawa, though, pursued it relentlessly, and his long tenure, coupled with the fact that the orchestra is now largely composed of his hires, is, I think, what completed the process and made it irreversible. I will, though, pull the recordings you mentioned and listen to them again. It's been a while, and will be an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

  9. Larry - Completely unrelated to your excellent post (I much enjoyed the comments, too) - you may be interested in the following site:

    Oh, and I am another person who is mystified by the Toscanini adulation.

  10. Buster: I've downloaded several things on lesparolesgelees and need to go back for some other treasures there. An additional delight is the reference to Rabelais, who is, with Voltaire, one of my literary heroes. AND, I get to practice my French, which I've been slack about for a year or two.

    It's heartening to know others who are not quite sure what the hoopla surrounding Toscanini is about. Beecham called him "that T-nini fellow", while Toscanini referred to my beloved Sir Thomas as a (sic)"mountainbank".

  11. I couldn't agree more. I well remember when the Philadelphia Orchestra had its regular radio concerts, Ormandy giving unforgettable performances of Feste Romane, the Concerto for Orchestra, and Bruckner's Fourth. I attended his rehearsals and performance with the BSO at Tanglewood of Beethoven's Ninth, at which one of the singers, a charter member of the TFC, who had sung in every performance of the piece since the first one they did with Leinsdorf in 1969, told me that this was one of the very best Ninths he'd ever heard in all the years there. I was moved to go backstage after the concert (something I've done only twice in 50 years of concertgoing) and overcoming my nervousness by asking for his autograph; he was very gracious. I wish that (similar to Von K's work with the BPO) all of Ormandy's stereo recordings with the Philadelphia could be re-issued in the best possible sound. Is that asking too much?