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November 18: Philadelphia’s Conductor

Lawrence Bush
November 18, 2016
Eugene Ormandy (Jeno Blau), who would take the baton from Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra for forty-four years, was born in Budapest on this date in 1899. He was a child prodigy violinist and came to the U.S. in 1921 (later remarking that he “was born in New York City at the age of 22”). He stood in for an ailing Toscanini in 1931, which led to his appointment as conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and a recording contract with RCA; he took over the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936, made hundreds of recordings with it, winning three Grammy Awards, and brought the orchestra on tours all around the world. “Under Stokowski, the orchestra was famed for . . . clarity of phrasing, skillful execution, and warm sonorities,” according to American National Biography Online. “Ormandy, who was actually quite honored to have such an unrivaled ensemble placed in his hands, sought to preserve Stokowski’s unique sound. The changes he made were implemented gradually, placing tonal emphasis on the orchestra’s peerless string section. He also reintroduced uniform bowing and conventional seating arrangements . . . to bring a consistent sound to the orchestra. Another change he made was in programming less modern or experimental music. Stokowski had been a fervent champion of ‘new music’ and often scheduled his programs along the lines of 50 percent established classical repertoire and 50 percent music by contemporary composers. Ever eager to please the conservative Philadelphia audiences, Ormandy selected 75 percent of his programs from the established repertoire and only 25 percent from relatively new compositions.” To see a 1949 newsreel about the orchestra in Great Britain, look below. “My conducting is what it is because I was a violinist. Toscanini was always playing the cello, 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.” --Eugene Ormandy

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.