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Philadelphia Orchestra's Eugene Ormandy, 85, Dies

March 13, 1985|DOROTHY TOWNSEND | Times Staff Writer

Eugene Ormandy, whose name has been virtually interchangeable with the Philadelphia Orchestra for nearly half a century, died Tuesday.

The maestro who lived with his orchestra as with a lifelong love and who viewed its players as his "musical children," was 85 when he died of pneumonia in his Philadelphia home with his wife at his side.

Ormandy officially handed over the Philadelphia baton to a younger man, Riccardo Muti, in 1980, but continued as conductor laureate until his death.

He also did occasional guest conducting and as recently as last April had been scheduled to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl, but a recurring heart ailment prevented his appearance.

"I suppose I am the last of the breed," he told interviewers after his 44 years with the Philadelphia organization had set a world record. And he made no secret of his disdain for the new breed of jet-set musical directors.

"Conductors now hold two, three, even four posts," he said in 1976. "All over the place...They have to get from one place to another as fast as they can...and at the very end, what did they gain? They don't have their own children, their musical children..."

As he approached his 80th birthday and final season as music director (1979-80), he was moved to say that his association with Philadelphia's artists and musicians "has been my life."

In a more relaxed mood, he would josh about the good fellowship he and his "boys and girls" enjoyed. "I'm one of the boys," he would say, "no better than the last second violinist. We are all musicians. I'm just the lucky one to be standing in the center, telling them how to play."

Under Ormandy and his predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphia Orchestra came to be a world-class musical ensemble, called by Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times "probably the greatest virtuoso orchestra of all time." The "Philadelphia sound" was familiar to music lovers around the globe, and that sound was distinctly Ormandy's.

It was said that in Ormandy's time more people had heard the Philadelphia sound than that of any other symphony orchestra. The Philadelphia was held to be the world's most traveled and most recorded symphonic organization. The musicians were kept so busy, in fact, that the Philadelphia became the first (in 1963) to offer its players a full 52-week contract, according to Louis Hood, former longtime public relations director for the orchestra.

The group toured widely and added something like 400 long-playing records to the musical catalogues under Ormandy's direction, garnering three gold records and two Grammy awards along the way.

In addition, Ormandy guest-conducted many other major orchestras that, legend has it, then began to emit the "Philadelphia sound."

Asked to define that sound, Ormandy would respond matter of factly: "C est moi." (It's me.) Not everyone along the way thought so. Some early critics were loath to give Ormandy that credit, saying he inherited the rich sound from Stokowski.

Great Tradition

Ormandy vowed to continue that great tradition when he succeeded Stokowski in 1936. "I could not permit it to be said that the reputation of the Philadelphia Orchestra was declining under my direction," he once told an interviewer.

"But the Stokowski sound and the Ormandy sound were not the same," he said. "I gave greater emphasis to the strings."

If, in the words of Hood, "Stokowski put the orchestra "on the map," Ormandy kept it there and brought it even greater fame. By the time he stepped aside all 106 players in the orchestra had been hand-picked by Ormandy. The sound was undeniably his.

Ormandy hadn't always been standing in the center, telling others how to play. He once was the last second violinist in a movie theater pit orchestra in New York City. It was a long way from Budapest's Royal State Academy of Music and his Wunderkind days as a budding concert violinist, but the job paid $60 a week and he was glad to get it.

It was 1921 and Ormandy was 22, broke and abashed that the U.S. concert tour for which he had crossed the Atlantic with such high hopes had collapsed before he ever set foot on a stage.

The two young fellow Hungarians who lured him into the ill-starred journey with a proposed package of 300 concerts at a fee of $30,000, proved to have more enthusiasm than experience. The best offer they could muster was for three Carnegie Hall concerts if they would put up $4,500 to defray costs.

This experience prompted Ormandy to quip in later years that he was "born in New York City at the age of 22."

Ormandy actually was born Jeno Blau in Budapest on Nov. 18, 1899, the son of a prosperous dentist with a fixation that his first-born son be a concert violinist. The boy was named Jeno (Eugene) after the reigning Hungarian violinist of the day, Jeno Hubay. At the age of 3 he was given a tiny fiddle and at 5 he was accepted as a pupil at the Royal State Academy--where Hubay taught. At 9, he played before the emperor, Franz Josef.

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