Ormandy’s Orchestra

EVERY TIME A different conductor blends 100 musicians together and stirs them with his baton he gets a different sound. Erich Leinsdorf gets a crisp, sparse classical mix from his Boston Symphony. Leonard Bernstein gets a mix which is flexible, but a little rough around the edges from his New York Philharmonic. Eugene Ormandy gets a rich, fat sound from the Philadelphia Orchestra which most connoisseurs of the medium claim provides the best listening in America today. Indeed some admirers claim it is the best in the world. The favorite recipes are the lush arrangements of Sibelius and Strauss achieved by adding enough strings to cover the winds blown at full blast. The Orchestra’s artistic success is duplicated in the ledger books. The organization turned the financial corner last year and is currently sitting on a gold mine of potential record royalties. The credit for proving that critical success and financial solvency are not mutually contradictory is hard to place. Part of it goes to a traditionally tight-fisted, hard-nosed board which has — and to an extent still does — pretend it is always in the middle of some sort of financial crisis. Part of it goes to the musicians who have harnessed their virtuosity into a top team performance. Part of it goes to the imagination and discipline imposed by Ormandy, laid over a firm foundation planted by his legendary predecessor, Leopold Stokowski.

Actually, the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra is a product of the 20th century. It began life on November 16th, an instantaneous success in a city which had begun to smart under the Quaker ban on music as well as the other arts. Three amateur Philadelphia musical organizations banded together to raise $1,000 each to put Scheel in charge of a permanent orchestra, after hearing him conduct the "New York Orchestra" at a local amusement park. Already available as a hall was the Academy of Music, at Broad and Locust Streets — the oldest auditorium in the country still in use in its original form. The Academy had been built in 1857, when opera was the fashionable form of musical entertainment; at that time Philadelphia, lagging behind Boston and New York, had no suitable house for it.

The first performance in the building designed by the famed architects Napoleon LeBrun and Gustavus Runge had been Verdi’s "II Trovatore," then only four years old. The Academy possesses the finest acoustics outside of Milan’s La Scala — not the least reason of which is that architect LeBrun went abroad to study this perfect opera house before drawing the plans. Acoustically, it is as alive and resonant throughout as a cello — there isn’t a dead spot or echo, whether the hall is full or empty, and the curve of the concert hall was calculated to eliminate concentrations of sound. The shallow overhead dome is matched by a deep brick-lined well underneath. It provided, in fact, the absolutely perfect background for an orchestra which was to attract superlatives whenever and wherever it played.