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Three Men and a Baby

June 8, 2006 By:
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f you don't expect too much from Philadelphia Maestros: Ormandy, Muti, Sawallisch, just out from Temple University Press, you can have a really wonderful time. The book's author, Phyllis White Rodriguez-Peralta, clearly loves the many hours she's spent over the years in the orchestra's company, basking in the glow its three dominant conductors have created. The author's affection and good cheer can be felt on every page.

The problem is, the publishers have given the work a beautiful physical look, and since it comes with the imprimatur of a university press - and its author comes with academic credentials, albeit in the Spanish and Portuguese department at Temple - prospective book-buyers might consider it a scholarly treatise, and then come away disappointed. At heart, these are a fan's notes, and Rodriguez-Peralta doesn't mind gushing.

Readers who've kept an eye on the "famous Philadelphians" for any extended period of time won't learn much that's new in these pages, but the journey remains a pleasant one. The author has gathered most of the relevant information after perusing archival materials and conducting a few interviews, and has set it all out in a diverting manner. Just don't expect depth of interpretation.

Nevertheless, Rodriguez-Peralta manages to draw three very distinct portraits of three very distinct artists and personalities. In her preface, she notes that she's used the orchestra's history before Ormandy and after Sawallisch to help fill out - and lend historical resonance to - her brief profiles.

According to the author, there seems to be an alternating pattern in the appointments of the assorted conductors associated with the orchestra. "The tempestuous Stokowski, a consummate showman, was followed by the outwardly unassuming Ormandy, who could forge amiable relations with the board of directors. The dramatic, exciting Muti was followed by the dignified, formal Sawallisch, the embodiment of Old World refinement. Eschenbach gives evidence of a return to showmanship, but of a different kind. Stokowski, Ormandy and Muti were in their 30s when they assumed their posts with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Sawallisch and Eschenbach are mature conductors who have proved themselves with other major orchestras. Each of these maestros was trained in a principal instrument: Stokowski in organ, Ormandy in violin, and Muti, Sawallisch and Eschenbach in piano. Some say that each conductor's approach to an orchestra reflects his particular instrument."

As most Philadelphians may already know, Ormandy made his debut with the orchestra when he filled in on the afternoon of Oct. 30, 1931, for any ailing Arturo Toscanini. The great Italian had been scheduled as the guest conductor for two weeks' worth of concerts, but just prior to the first rehearsal he'd cabled from Italy to say that a bout of neuritis in his right arm had shelved his plans. Stokowski was on vacation, and a number of other conductors turned down offers to substitute. Ormandy was the only available candidate and, according to Rodriguez-Peralta, although he was aware of the considerable risks facing him, he was willing to take the chance.

The author also notes that the program was "not an easy one: Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98; Jaromir Weinberger, Polka and Fugue from Schwanda; Strauss, Till Eulenspiegel and Waltzes from Rosenkavalier. And there were only three days before the first rehearsal! Ormandy memorized everything over the weekend. On Monday he took the train from New York, where he was living, to Philadelphia and began rehearsing with the Orchestra. He conducted the program on the following Friday afternoon."

According to Rodriguez-Peralta, the critics and audience were unanimous in their praise of Ormandy's mastery over the music; the debut actually made national news. Ormandy was offered to fill in for Toscanini's second week as well.

The young conductor's good fortune continued.

The head of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now known as the Minnesota Symphony) suffered a debilitating stroke. The orchestra's manager, having read the fuss made over Ormandy's debut, had someone approach him about filling in in the Midwest as well. Ormandy's "first rehearsal with the orchestra went well; in fact, the musicians stood and applauded. After the second rehearsal, the board of directors signed him to a five-year contract."

During his brief tenure in Minneapolis, Ormandy often did guest-conducting in Philadelphia. So when Stokowski decided in 1936 that he no longer wanted to be the full-time director, the natural choice for the position of co-conductor went to Ormandy, who wound up conducting for 22 weeks, while Stokowski did six. There was still time left on Ormandy's contract in Minneapolis, but the board of directors were so grateful for all that Ormandy had done that they released him.

There were predictions that the Philadelphians would never survive Stokowski's departure, but the doubters were, of course, proven wrong. Ormandy's long tenure was a great success, though Rodriguez-Peralta does not shy away from pointing out many of his conducting flaws, which only became aggravated as he aged.

As for Ormandy's "discovery" of the dynamic Ricardo Muti - his handpicked successor - the process began in Florence in May 1970, when the orchestra was on one of its extended European tours. Ormandy witnessed a Muti rehearsal at the Teatro Communale in the city, and was so impressed that he invited the young man and some other musicians to a private luncheon. He then signed up Muti as a guest conductor with the Philadelphians, and he made his U.S. debut on Oct. 27, 1972.

Impact Proved Immediate

Rodriguez-Peralta notes that once Muti took over, his impact on the orchestra was immediate: "He expected a disciplined ensemble and strict adherence to what was written in the score. He did not feel that the Orchestra measured up to his standards; in fact, he was appalled at the laxity of attacks and the occasional faulty intonations. His conducting technique elicited a simultaneous beginning attack with absolute rhythmic precision - quite different from the expansive, elongated rhythm to which the Orchestra was accustomed. He was not so much interested in the sound in the Academy of Music - and never once did he go out into the hall to judge the sound - as he was in balance and proportion and clarity. What he wanted was a clean sound more in line with what record companies demanded, and he did not want one instrumental section to dominate the others. The Orchestra, he felt, should be in accord with present-day practices. His approach, after Ormandy, was revolutionary."

As for Sawallisch, Rodriguez-Peralta notes that his conducting technique remains "reserved and courtly, like his personality. There are no affectations, no posturing. Upon entering the stage, he gives the impression that he is scarcely aware of the audience; the important thing is to get to his Orchestra and begin the music. With a clean baton technique, he uses a minimum of conducting gestures, but every gesture is meaningful. He is the opposite of a Bernstein or a Stokowski, because he believes - and acts upon this belief - that the music is what is important and that the conductor is not there to entertain. He has no desire to be a celebrity conductor, and his calm exterior is sometimes misread by the audience, which has criticized the lack of drama."

But the rapport between the conductor and his musicians, according to the author, was so complete that even the most subtle movement was understood and interpreted.

Another winning feature of Rodriguez-Peralta's little book are the interesting things she has to say about how all three men reacted to and then refashioned - for better and for worse - what's become known as the famous, string-driven "Philadelphia sound."

 

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