Music: Is There a Maestro in the Wings?

What happens after Ormandy hangs up his baton? Don’t ask.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PHILADELPHIA Orchestra. Seventy-five years young this coming season, and still exuding that same lush, rich sound that has made you so justifiably famous. May you live to be a thousand.

Happy birthday, Eugene Ormandy. Seventy-five years old this coming season, and still tenaciously entrenched as the world’s longest-surviving orchestra conductor and permanent music director. Of course your equally famous predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, was 92 last April 18th (or only 87, if you support Stokie’s eccentric, life-long battle with biographers to push the date on his birth certificate forward five years), but then, he hasn’t been continuously leading one of the world’s most important orchestras for the past 39 years. And that’s a longevity record that not even the giants like Furtwangler, von Bulow, or Toscanini have come close to matching. May you live to be a hundred.

ORCHESTRAS, LIKE FINE wines and rare violins, usually mellow and mature with age. The older they are, the better they sound. This is especially true with the Philadelphia Orchestra because of its truly exceptional string section. Over the years, orchestra members have been encouraged and assisted in acquiring rare Stradivari and Guarneri instruments, which are then passed on to new men by retiring players. When critics refer to the "Philadelphia Sound," they usually mean the extra dimension of quality that comes from the several score rare string instruments — more than any other orchestra in the world.

Conductors, however, being only human, eventually reach the zenith of their artistic and interpretive powers and either die or decline. As great as Stokowski is in the hearts and memories of music lovers everywhere (and I can remember standing in line at the Academy of Music for hours as a music student, just to hear the Maestro), his performances and recordings of the past decade have been noticeably inferior to those of earlier, more energetic days. Toscanini, too, had momentary lapses of memory, on the podium towards the end of his long and distinguished career. Stokie, who had been freelancing for many years after drifting through a succession of second-rate posts with failing orchestras, had no orchestra to leave behind when he finally retired to his English estate last year. But when Toscanini stepped down as conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1954, the NBC quickly went under because there was no one of his stature to succeed him.

With Eugene Ormandy fast approaching three-quarters of a century, many cloakroom whisperers at the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street have once again begun thinking the unthinkable: will the Maestro retire after the 1974-75 season? Or will he try to hang on for another decade or two? And if he should happen to step down — or expire in mid-season — who could succeed him?