Eugene Ormandy was the renowned conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra for four decades. He continued Stokowski’s work with the orchestra to create the so-called “Philadelphia Sound”.
Ormandy was born in Budapest, Hungary on 18 November 1899. His extraordinary musical talent was evident from a very young age, leading to his acceptance at the age of five to the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music as a violinist. By the age of seven he was giving concerts. He graduated with a master’s degree at the age of 14, after two years of study with Jenő Hubay.
He first found work as a violinist, as concertmaster of the Blüthner Orchestra in Germany and performing as a soloist throughout all of Europe. At just 17 years old, Ormandy was appointed professor of violin.
On the advice of an agent, who promised Ormandy a luxurious solo career in the USA, Ormandy packed his bags for New York, arriving in 1921. Unfortunately, the concert tour that his agent had lined up fell through and work was scarce.
In order to make ends meet, Ormandy took a discouraging last chair position in the orchestra at the Capitol Theatre in New York, accompanying silent films. There, each piece was played approximately 28 times per week. Ormandy quickly moved up the ranks in the orchestra, becoming the concertmaster within a year. His debut as conductor took place in September 1924, when the regular conductor became sick. Despite the last-minute nature of his debut, it was a success and Ormandy was appointed associate music director in 1926.After becoming an American citizen in 1927, Ormandy engaged the help of his friend, Arthur Judson, to find work as a guest conductor in addition to his obligations at the Capitol Theatre Ormandy began guest conducting light music for radio broadcasts. He also appeared as a guest conductor for the New York Philharmonic in 1929 and the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra in Philadelphia in 1930.
Ormandy received his first breakthrough conducting opportunity in 1931, when Judson arranged for him to substitute for Toscanini in Philadelphia in 1931. Again, he was very successful and was immediately appointed music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1936.
While in Minneapolis, Ormandy made a name for himself nationally, through his many recordings with the orchestra, including premiere recordings of theHáry János Suiteby Kodály and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.
Following his immense success in Minneapolis, the Philadelphia Orchestra offered him a co-music director position with Stokowski in 1936, as they were gradually reducing Stokowski’s workload. After two years working together, Ormandy was appointed the sole music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1938, remaining for more than four decades, until 1980. After his retirement from the orchestra, Ormandy was appointed conductor laureate. During his time with the orchestra, Ormandy made numerous recordings and led the orchestra on both national and international concert tours. He also served as guest conductor throughout the entire world.
Ormandy’s strengths as a conductor included his ability to learn new works very quickly, even from memory. He was known for conducting without a baton or score. Though he was lucky to inheritStokowski’s orchestra, which already became known for its rich “Philadelphia Sound”, Ormandy expanded on this, claiming it should be called the “Ormandy Sound”. Due to many vacancies, he was able to choose many of the best players he could find to join the orchestra. As with Stokowski, Ormandy insisted on working daily with the orchestra, conducting more than 100 concerts per year.
Due to the incredibly dry acoustics of the orchestra’s concert hall—the Academy of Music—Ormandy insisted on a much richer and sonorous string sound accompanied often by legato phrasing and a round tone.
The music of the late-Romantic and early 20th-century periods were Ormandy’s specialties. He was well-appreciated for his interpretations of the music of Dvořák, Strauss, Bruckner, Debussy and Ravel. He also conducted the premieres of Rachmaninov’sSymphonic Dances and Bartók’s Concerto no. 3, in addition to works byBritten, Hindemith, Martinů, Milhaud, Persichetti andWebern. Other premieres include works by Barber, Creston, Diamond,Ginastera, Hanson, Walter Piston, Ned Rorem, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, Virgil Thompson andVilla-Lobos. In addition, he experienced success with his re-orchestratedBach works.
Ormandy also recorded a large number of new works, including the first recordings of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 and his Symphony no. 4 along with Mahler’s Symphony no. 10—in a version completed by Deryck Cooke. In addition to these works, he also recorded light “easy listening” works with the orchestra, including the type of movie music he had played at the Capitol Theatre.
While he experienced much success in the lusciously and intricately scored (late-) Romantic and early 20th-century works, Ormandy was not successful in his performances of Brahms or Beethoven. In fact, he was often criticized for the vulgar or shallow nature of his interpretations. Furthermore, despite the spectacular sound the orchestra was able to deliver under Ormandy’s direction, the performances were often criticized for not being individual enough. Despite this critique, the performances were as polished as a precious stone and very well-paced. Ormandy always did his best to fulfill the composers’ wishes.
In 1973, Ormandy and his orchestra became the first American symphony orchestra to appear in the People’s Republic of China. Other firsts include the first symphony concert broadcast for American television (1948)—something he beat Stokowski and the NBC Symphony to by just 90 minutes.
Ormandy only left the Philadelphia Orchestra because of his failing health, he once said, “One retires when one is dead or ill”. He handed his orchestra over to Riccardo Muti, who he had hand-picked to carry on the Philadelphia legacy.
Eugene Ormandy died in his home in Philadelphia at the age of 85 from pneumonia, after having suffered from a heart condition for a number of years.
Among the many honours he earned during his lifetime was his appointment as a knight in 1976 by Queen Elizabeth II, in observance of the American bicentennial.