Almost no other conductor in the history of recorded music can boast a recording career that went from the Acoustic period all the way to the Digital era and recorded such a massive quantity of music in the process. It was once joked that Ormandy came about as close as any conductor to recording the “complete works of Everybody” during this lengthy career. Subsequently, just about everyone who had even a passing interest in Classical music had at least one Ormandy recording in their collection.
This concert, part of a series given by Ormandy and the BSO in February of 1983 sticks pretty much by the tried-and-true:
Eugene Ormandy Boston Symphony Orchestra
Samuel Barber / Adagio for Strings (arranged from String Quartet, Op. 11)
Richard Strauss / Don Juan, Op. 20 (Tone Poem after Lenau)
Johannes Brahms / Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Ormandy’s 44-year tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra began in 1936 and became the source of much of his lasting reputation and fame. Two years after his appointment as associate conductor under Leopold Stokowski, he became its music director. (Stokowski continued to conduct some concerts in Philadelphia until 1941; he returned as a guest conductor in 1960.) As music director, Ormandy conducted from 100 to 180 concerts each year in Philadelphia. Upon his retirement in 1980, he was made conductor laureate.
Ormandy was a quick learner of scores, often conducting from memory and without a baton. He demonstrated exceptional musical and personal integrity, exceptional leadership skills, and a formal and reserved podium manner in the style of his idol and friend, Arturo Toscanini. One orchestra musician complimented him by saying: “He doesn’t try to conduct every note as some conductors do.” Under Ormandy’s direction the Philadelphia Orchestra continued the lush, legato style originated by Stokowski and for which the orchestra was well known. Ormandy’s conducting style was praised for its opulent sound, but also was criticized for supposedly lacking any real individual touch. In the book Dinner with Lenny, containing one of the last interviews of Leonard Bernstein, Ormandy is criticized by Bernstein for applying the same lush sound to every piece that he conducted, even if the composer of the piece in question did not call for it, a criticism that Bernstein voiced indirectly in The Sound of an Orchestra, one of the Young People’s Concerts.
Ormandy was particularly noted for conducting late Romantic and early 20th century music. He particularly favored Bruckner, Debussy, Dvořák, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and transcriptions of Bach. His performances of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, and Mozart were considered less successful by some critics, especially when he applied the lush, so-called “Philadelphia Sound” to them. On the other hand, Donald Peck, principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, reports that a fellow flutist was won over when Ormandy conducted the Chicago in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; he told Peck that it was the greatest Ninth he had ever heard. He was particularly noted as a champion of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music, conducting the premiere of his Symphonic Dances and leading the orchestra in the composer’s own recordings of three of his piano concertos in 1939–40. He also directed the American premiere of several symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich. He made the first recording of Deryck Cooke’s first performing edition of the complete Mahler Tenth Symphony, which many critics praised. His recording of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony received stellar reviews and is held in high regard. He also performed a great deal of American music and gave many premières of works by Samuel Barber, Paul Creston, David Diamond, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, Ned Rorem, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, Virgil Thomson, and Richard Yardumian.
If you’re here for the repertoire or here for the band and its leader, it’s a good concert and fits in nicely with the Boston Symphony’s legacy of being one of the great orchestras of the world.
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