Ormandy and His Orchestra

Copyright © 1998 by Fred Flaxman

When General Douglas MacArthur was relieved of his command, he left with a speech in which he said, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away." Well, as it turns out, old conductors never die either. They just transfer to compact discs where they live forever!

Such is the case, happily, with Eugene Ormandy. And because of this, perhaps my May 7, 1961, interview with him needn't be buried either. I was a journalism student at the University of Michigan at the time, when Ormandy and his orchestra came to town. I used a portable tape-recorder and the results were published the next day in the Ann Arbor News:

QUESTION: The Philadelphia Orchestra has often been called "The greatest in the world" -- not only by record jackets, but also by many music connoisseurs. How are the orchestra members hired and how much rehearsing does the orchestra do to retain this title?

ORMANDY: Hiring musicians is quite a procedure. First they play for me in auditions--very exacting auditions. My assistant conducts for them, and he conducts in a way I would never permit him to conduct in concert, with complete freedom to the point that the musician trying out has to prove that he can follow the conductor no matter what he does. Then they have to play a solo to show what kind of schooling they've had. I sit in the audience. I don't know who they are. I know them only by numbers, and the best man or woman is chosen.

Then they have a year's trial because even the greatest artist may not find himself at home in an orchestra such as ours if he hasn't the personality or if there is some friction between him and his colleagues or him and myself.

Then we have a lot of rehearsals. Now works such as the classics we don't rehearse as much--we don't have to because they are in our repertoire and are constantly being played. But we never go on stage without a very complete and thorough rehearsal, even of the Brahms "First Symphony" which I'm sure the orchestra could play backwards.

Contemporary works require a great deal more of our rehearsal time. Many times the men are requested to take their parts home because of some very difficult passages which must be looked over before rehearsal in order to save time. But this orchestra is so marvelously trained and has such a sense of pride at being one of the world's greatest orchestras that I rarely have to remind the members to take home their parts when they are difficult.

QUESTION: What do you think of the critical notices that the orchestra receives? Have you ever learned anything from a reviewer?

ORMANDY: This is an embarrassing question because I must confess that I very seldom see a review. This is something that most of my colleagues say, knowing full well that they are always watching for them in the morning. On tour we never stay long enough to spend the night in the same city so we never get a chance to read the reviews. Sometimes we do, but not often. But artists, especially artists of our standing, know what they want to do and, while constructive criticism is always welcome, we spend more time on the compositions than some of the critics have. We know what we want to do with them. Very seldom do we make any changes. Our worst critics are ourselves. When I listen to playbacks of my own recordings, I find myself to be much worse than the most dangerous critic I know.

QUESTION: How do you feel about making recordings as opposed to giving live concerts?

ORMANDY: I would much rather give concerts!

QUESTION: I know you worked closely with Rachmaninov. Was he as unhappy as his music sounds and his pictures look?

ORMANDY: Rachmaninov was really two people. He hated his own music and was usually unhappy about it when he performed or conducted it in public so that the public saw only this side of him. But, among his close friends, he had a very good sense of humor and was in good spirits.

He liked his "Symphonic Dances" and his "Third Symphony," both of which he dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra and to me, but he didn't like--well, I guess he was sick of--his two most famous works: the "Second Piano Concerto" and the "Prelude in C-Sharp Minor."

QUESTION: Do you think modern American music reflects modern American culture or that most contemporary music in this country is still under European influence?

ORMANDY: I'm very glad you asked me that because I think American music is so often underrated. We seem to have an inferiority complex about our music and there is no reason why we should. America can be very proud of its composers. They are writing music that is distinctly American. Just as you can always tell if a piece is by a Russian composer or a German or a French composer, you can always identify an American composition by its peculiarly American flavor. Our composers are no longer under a great European influence.

QUESTION: Would you consider Gershwin an example of a great American composer?

ORMANDY: His style was certainly American and he was really the "Father of American music"--although that is not exactly right because there were men like Ives and MacDowell before him. But they were still very much influenced by European music.

Gershwin had great talent, but he was humble enough to realize the limitations he had because he never had the learning and training he would have needed to become a great serious composer. I have no doubt that he could have become one had he wanted to because he certainly had the talent. But he became wealthy writing musical comedies and you can't blame him for wanting to write still more musical comedies.

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