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Eugene Ormandy's legacy: that special velvetysound

TO many music lovers, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra personified classical music in this country. The conductor, who passed away last month, held the post of music director of the orchestra for 44 years, the longest tenure of a symphony orchestra in American musical history. After being replaced by Riccardo Muti, Mr. Ormandy assumed the title of director emeritus and, for a while, increased his guest conducting commitments around the world.

Maestro Ormandy was born in Budapest and studied there as a child prodigy violinist. He arrived in the United States in 1921, became a citizen in '27. His first job was in New York's Capitol Theater Orchestra as a violinist, then as concertmaster, and finally as conductor. He headed the Minneapolis Symphony from '31-'36, at which time he assumed the co-principal job in Philadelphia with Leopold Stokowski, whom he succeeded in '38.

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The Philadelphia ``sound'' was Stokowski's doing, but the maintenance, refinement, and, finally, the institutionalization of that sound was Ormandy's. Over the years he had been criticized for his middle-of-the-road interpretive style and the increasingly undaring programming. But Ormandy was responsible for a good many premi`eres in Philadelphia. He was a champion of Bartok, a personal friend (and the favored interpreter of the music) of Rachmaninoff, and was responsible for a goodly share of Shostakovich premi`eres on these shores.

Ormandy, in true old-style fashion, spent the bulk of his time (and life) with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Even in the last decade, when it became fashionable to cut commitments to one's orchestra to little more than half a season, Ormandy never changed his ways. He felt strongly that it could not be his orchestra if he were not the principal moving musical force behind it.

That famed Ormandy/Philadelphia sound was always based on the strings, which had a creamy, silky, voluptuous fullness. The brass and winds were generally held back to blend with that string sound rather than dominate or complement. His recordings with Columbia Records in the '60s and '70s were the mainstay of that catalog and some of the consistently best-selling records ever made. People bought Ormandy/Philadelphia as a matter of course, knowing that the performances would be unabashedly gorgeous and make a good phonograph system sound even better.

The Ormandy style came to its apex in the Russian repertoire. His interpretations of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and Shostakovich were incomparable. That said, his Brahms was full-blooded, his Beethoven an engaging throwback to an age when lush, full sonorities were expected in the music. And few conductors brought such consistent aural velvet to the scores of Richard Strauss. And it cannot be overlooked that Ormandy as a concerto accompanist was considered without peer by young and old soloists alike.

In his later years Ormandy became something of an anachronism to the younger generations of conductors and musicians. It became almost fashionable to deplore the old-fashioned approach to music when others were beginning to focus on the structural aspects of music.

It also became fashionable to ignore the idea that a conductor would be identified by a sound: As the newer maestros became card-carrying members of the jet set, they all wanted to have all orchestras sound alike, so their ``interpretation'' with the Chicago Symphony would sound like the one with the London Symphony. But Ormandy stayed true to himself, as was evident at the last concert he conducted -- in Carnegie Hall, Jan. 10, 1984. In Beethoven and Bartok the calling cards of an Ormandy performance were everywhere to be heard.

The recordings for CBS Masterworks and many of the later RCA performances do not misrepresent the best of Ormandy. Fortunately, he lived at a time when what he represented could be captured in sweeping stereo. His legacy will speak for itself as long as there are listeners interested in the history of conducting as a virtuoso artistic endeavor.

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