Music: Is There a Maestro in the Wings?

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

His replacement was none other than Leopold Stokowski, who transformed the Philadelphia Orchestra from a run-of-the-mill provincial ensemble to the famous group that it is today. Stokje had made an excellent reputation for himself as an innovator and orchestra-builder during his earlier three-year tenure at the Cincinnati Symphony, and the 30-year-old conductor quickly applied those abilities to his new post. Besides his wholesale firings and hirings (by 1921, only five players from Scheel’s original orchestra remained), Stokowski introduced Philadelphia’s arch-conservative audiences to the music of Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and other contemporary but relatively traditional composers. He even premiered Gustav Mahler’s massive work Symphony of a Thousand in 1916, and actually used 1,068 musicians and singers in the performance. Although his audiences chafed at this sideways assault on their classical diet of Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, they politely listened until Stokie started premiering work by (the then) more avant garde composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Philadelphia society may have even overlooked this musical faux pas if it were not for Stokowski’s aversion to Philadelphia society. As an aristocrat of the Old School, he held himself arrogantly aloof to the local goings-on, and refused to become involved in anything that did not directly relate to his musical duties. In this, he squarely pitted himself against the real power of the Orchestra — the Women’s Committees, who dominated the Friday afternoon concerts (which are still called Ladies Days at the Academy). The Women’s Committees, long dominated by Miss Fanny Wister, expressed their dissatisfaction by strolling into concerts late, talking during performances, and then sneaking off early.

Stokowski, never one to ignore rudeness, used to halt concerts in mid-beat until the stragglers were seated; although this greatly embarrassed the latecomers, it didn’t seem to slow them down in the least. Stokie finally had his revenge in 1926 when he scheduled an odd program which included the works of Haydn, Wagner and an obscure Belgian named Lekeu. He started with the Lekeu work, written for small orchestra, with only two violins on the stage. As other musicians had parts to play, they rushed in with their instruments, sat down, and joined in. By the end of the piece, most of the orchestra still had not arrived. Then Stokowski played the Wagner, which, appropriately enough, was Ride at the Valkyries. More musicians rushed in, some even playing before they sat down. The bulk of the program was uneventful, but when Stokie played the last work — Haydn’s Farewell Symphony — the musicians began looking at their watches, fidgeting, and began sneaking out one by one. At the end, there were only two violins and the conductor on stage to take the applause.

Some of the ladies took this musical joke as a good-humored ribbing, but others seethed hostility at every pore for being so effectively mocked. But Stokowski was world-renowned by this time, and it wouldn’t do to fire such a famous celebrity. Ten years later, in 1936, however. after 23 years of service, Stokie apparently was maneuvered into a position in which he felt he had to resign, There are many stories about Stokie’s "firing," and not a few feel that he left because of pressure from Miss Wister’s Women’s Committees. One board member, however, said that Stokie was induced to depart because "he was asking much more for doing much less."