Artist Profile: Eugene Ormandy

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Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) has received a lot of criticism over the years. Many seem to love to hate him, which I personally find deeply unfair. There are other conductors who go deeper, but few have been able to create such a brilliant and warm orchestral sound as he did with the Philadelphia Orchestra during his more than 40 years with the orchestra.

Born Jeno Blau in Budapest, Hungary, he came to the United States and initially earned his living as a violinist in theatres and cinemas. His conducting career took off in the 1930s: the young Hungarian made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1931 and took over the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra) between 1931 and 1936. Ormandy raised the quality of the orchestra remarkably and made one of the first recordings of Mahler’s Second Symphony there.

Ormandy is, of course, best known for his long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he was chief conductor from 1938 to 1980, having previously shared the baton with Leopold Stokowski for two years. This flamboyant conductor had laid the foundations and created an exceptionally virtuosic ensemble. Ormandy did not have Stokowski’s personality, but he refined the orchestra and developed the distinctive ‘Philadelphia sound’, characterised by a warm, rich string tone, perhaps unsurprising for a conductor who was originally a violinist, and the powerful, bronze-like brass.

Early on, Ormandy recognised the importance of recordings in bringing the orchestra to the world’s attention. Few conductors have made as many recordings as Ormandy, with only Doráti, Marriner, Karajan and a few others coming close. In recent years, Sony and RCA have released three boxed sets that are essential for record collectors – his complete Minneapolis recordings, the mono recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the stereo recordings made between 1958 and 1963. The musical quality of these recordings – combined with a superb remastering that breathes new life into the interpretations – contradicts the general view of his detractors that he was a bore.

Ormandy had a particularly wide repertoire, ranging from Vivaldi and Bach to the most modern composers. He had a penchant for recording the music of lesser-known composers such as Albéniz, Ibert, Glière, Honegger, Myaskovsky and Walton. He also recorded contemporary American composers such as Walter Piston, Virgil Thompson, Richard Yardumian, Roy Harris and William Schumann.

Otherwise, he excelled in the Romantic repertoire and 20th century music. Its specialities include Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartók. The orchestra’s rich sound and well-balanced interpretations often make for a convincing whole, without exaggeration. Other conductors produce more adrenaline-fueled interpretations, but Ormandy’s measured and virtuosic performances hold up surprisingly well over time.

He was also the favourite conductor of many soloists, known for his responsive accompaniment, and over the years Ormady and his orchestra made numerous recordings with Oistrakh, Stern, Francescatti, Serkin, Rubinstein and other famous musicians. Opera, however, was an art form he rarely ventured into, although he regularly conducted overtures and orchestral excerpts during his concerts, especially of Wagner’s music.

Nowadays, orchestras often sound the same, which is not surprising in the age of globalisation, when musicians from all over the world are part of the various world ensembles. In the past, orchestras stood out a bit more, like the Philadelphia Orchestra, which really had a unique sound, luxurious, saturated and with golden colours. It was an orchestra that you could easily identify on the record you were listening to. And it was in many ways thanks to Eugene Ormandy that the orchestra became as famous and successful as it did, something for which he should be given more credit.

Notable Recordings

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