Hearing Ormandy again

I want to correct an injustice. Fifty years ago, back when I knew everything (as most of us do in our 20s), I dismissed symphony conductor Eugene Ormandy as a lightweight. He wasn’t one of the “big boys.” Like many others back then, an assumption was made that if you didn’t wow us with some personal vision of a work, it was just bland candy. All those recordings with the Mormon Pumpernickel Choir didn’t help. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Ormandy, was rich and round, with silky string tones and blended winds. But unlike, say, Leonard Bernstein, who led the technically scruffier New York Philharmonic, there didn’t seem to be any distinct personality behind their music making. 

I was hardly alone back then. In 1967, Harold Schonberg wrote, “There was a singular reluctance in musical circles to admit him into the ranks of great conductors.” He was thought superficial; Toscanini dismissed him as “an ideal conductor of Johann Strauss.” In an era of strong podium personalities, Ormandy seemed merely worksmanlike. 

Time has taught some of us otherwise. 

Orchestra conducting has gone through several major fashion changes over the past century or so. After the First World War, the field was dominated by dominating baton wielders. The Furtwanglers, Mengelbergs, Weingartners and, of course, Toscanini. Each had a personal style, and that style was instantly recognizable: Furtwangler’s waywardness, Mengelberg’s rubato, Toscanini’s rhythmic incisiveness. Oh, and there was Stokowski — glamor on the podium personified, married to Gloria Vanderbilt and originator of the famous “Philadelphia sound.” 

After the Second World War, there arose another generation of superstar conductors but with the advantage of high-fidelity recording. This time, it was Bernstein, Karajan and Mravinsky. Bernstein brought passion; Karajan brought a smoothness, almost like pouring Karo syrup over everything. Mravinsky had his own special intensity. Someone once said of Mravinsky that he would be the perfect man to conduct “the end of the world.” 

There were many others, of course. George Szell made perfection a fetish; Fritz Reiner drove his musicians hard and put them up wet; Erich Leinsdorf kept Boston neat and clean. Several pre-war conductors hit their stride in recordings after the war: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Fans bought their recordings based on the names of the bandleaders. 

And there was Ormandy, inheritor of the Philadelphia Sound from Stokie, and, it seemed to us then, a caretaker baton overseeing a first-rate orchestra. Yet, he kept it a first-rate orchestra for all of his 44 years at the helm. That didn’t happen because Ormandy was a second-rate conductor. 

And orchestra fashions continued to change. The increasing power of musicians’ unions made it impossible for a conductor to command the orchestra like a dictator. There was negotiation instead of fiat. The next generation of conductors featured a high proportion of time-beaters, who could keep the music moving along, but without much in the way of anything new to say. These were the Kapellmeisters

Christian Thielemann has define this: ”a Kapellmeister now describes a pale, meek figure beating time. A policeman on duty at the podium directing the musical traffic, no more.”

To be fair, this has always described the vast majority of orchestra leaders, in provincial  and civic orchestras and opera houses. But some high-profile conductors have won praise for their supposedly “non-interventionist” approach to music-making. Just the notes, ma’am. 

More recently, something more sinister has crept in. Under the heading of “historically informed performance practice,” many conductors now use theory to guide their musicmaking, rather than their ears. Among the HIPP conductors, what is important is the “conception” of the music. Fast tempi, barline-beats, clipped phrasing, vibratoless strings, motoric rhythms. They profess to be following the composers’ intentions, so we might hear “how it sounded when the composer first heard it.” All well and good, if you are interested in a museum exhibit rather than music. In fact, we cannot know what it sounded like 200 years ago and the reconstruction seems to have more to do with a generation of conductors who grew up with rock and roll. 

And that esthetic has infected even mainstream conductors, who now play with smaller orchestras in quicker tempi and leaner sound. The vaunted “Philadelphia Sound” now seems a lumbering dinosaur. 

Yet, if you listen without prejudice, Philadelphia under Ormandy is not only beautiful to the ear, it feels as if they all understand the music without having to justify it in manifestos. They understood what the music was saying. 

This is something that divides most current musicians from their forebears. The older conductors and their orchestras knew the music was about something, that it was meant to express something — tell a story, make a metaphor for existence, elevate our spirits. But Igor Stravinsky claimed “Music can express nothing.” And for Toscanini, Beethoven’s Eroica was not about heroism. “For me it is just Allegro con brio.” An arrangement of notes. 

But for the composers, especially of the 19th century, music was meant to express something. And it was assumed to be the conductor’s job to shape the music in such a way as to make the meaning clear. 

Certainly, some conductors made their own intensions clearer than the composer’s. The virtue I now recognize in Ormandy is that he absorbed the meaning of the music and got his musicians to express it. Not to glorify Ormandy and not to play a mere arrangement of notes. 

It first conked me side the head when I came across his Sony recording of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, the big ones. They were emotional and direct without being wrought or exaggerated. They flowed with a naturalness that made everything seem inevitable. It was neither metronomic nor taffy-pulled. It breathed. 

If you believe Tchaikovsky’s music has something to say to us (rather than merely entertain us), then coming to Ormandy’s Tchaikovsky again after 50 years will be a revelation. Its directness and naturalness are not the result of Ormandy’s mediocrity, but of a mastery that doesn’t flaunt itself. 

I have since listened to piles of old Ormandy recordings. Many of them are now reissued in cheap box sets. And one comes to recognize that his Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is a reference recording, never been done better. His Sibelius Seventh is one of the best ever. Ormandy and Philadelphia made the world-premiere recording of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. 

One recording alone should prove Ormandy’s virtues. The Rimsky-Korsakoff Capriccio Espagnol has the idiom perfect and the virtuoso soloists give it a fizz and panache that make you stand up and hoot. It has never been done better. 

No, he didn’t do everything equally well. His specialty was the 19th and early 20th centuries. His Bach is vestigial and his Handel is pretty well confined to a holiday performance of Messiah with the gargantuan Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when you want Rachmaninoff done the way he’s supposed to go, or Tchaikovsky, or Sibelius, or Debussy, Ormandy is my go-to guy. 

Rediscovering him in my old age has been a joy. 

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