I first saw him when I was a small boy, and my parents had just presented me with a set of new encyclopedias that would help me once I started the first grade at school. I was thumbing through the wonderfully bound books, unable to read of course, but intensely checking out the pictures.
Eventually I came across a page that showed a bald headed man apparently demonstrating the various moves of an orchestra conductor. He looked friendly to me. When I asked my mother who that man was, and what was he doing, she said it was Eugene Ormandy and that he was demonstrating the various techniques conductors use to indicate they want certain sounds from the musicians.
Well, I was already familiar with at least some of that through my church. The church in which I grew up was a fairly formal church although it was and still is part of the evangelical movement, Baptist in particular. The choir had some of the best singers in town, and its director, organist, and pianist were top notch. I feel fortunate in that regard -- to have had the opportunity to grow up in a church where some of the world's most timeless sacred music was performed.
I had also begun to take piano lessons at my parents' insistence, much to my dismay. The organist at church also gave private lessons. I was at the age where boys are normally more interested in baseball, football, and such, and I did not want to take piano, at least not at that particular time. But as you can imagine I lost out, and off to piano lessons I went. I stayed long enough to have my first recital before an audience, albeit a small one, in the home of the piano teacher.
So, there was something already there within me drawing me into the world of Ormandy and symphony orchestras. I remember coming home from church and imitating the choir director, pretending that I was directing the music. It was fun to me. And as time passed by, it became Ormandy that I imitated.
In no time after I started to school and began to read, I began to consume everything I could get my hands on about Ormandy. I learned that he was considered the foremost conductor in the world, and that he conducted what was considered at the time to be the foremost orchestra in the world, the Philadelphia Orchestra. This fascination with Ormandy and the Philadelphians continued as I grew into adulthood. In the intervening years I had purchased as much of their music as I could afford.
Later, as a young man I traveled to New York City on a regular basis. I had some connection at the time with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and found myself serving as a member of his "Foundation for Christian Living." I also had met some friends from Canada who were part of this venture, and at times I traveled to Canada to see them. During my trips I would make it a point to pass through Philadelphia on the evenings that Ormandy presented his weekly concerts at the old Academy of Music on South Broad Street. The old building has been refurbished to its original splendor, they tell me, and it is listed in the registry of historic buildings.
As a young man just starting out in life I could not afford the premium seats but Ormandy wanted anyone to be able to come to the concerts. So, a section was maintained that I called "the cheap seats." But I didn't care. I got to see "my conductor" and "my orchestra." Nothing cheap about that.
When Ormandy died in 1985, his wife Margaret, who was known as "Gretel," offered to donate all of her husband's papers, correspondence, conductor's scores, recorded music, and other historic documents to the University of Pennsylvania, if they could consider building an Ormandy memorial. This was done with the help and support of Ormandy's many friends and supporters. Thus, the papers can now be accessed at the University of Pennsylvania. They are also available online.
One interesting tidbit I learned about Ormandy was the surprising expanse of his influence. Albert Einstein, the scientific genius, was a fan. He once wrote to Ormandy about a musician he knew in Europe who was having trouble with obtaining a visa. Einstein wanted to know if Ormandy would help. That, he did.
And simply attending a concert at the Academy was in itself a lesson of "who's who in the world." Hardly a concert went by that someone of world significance was not in attendance, including presidents, queens, prime ministers, and movers and shakers in business, science, the arts, and politics. This was the Ormandy influence.
The concert video that you can watch below is from 1963. As you can see, Ormandy is much younger and much more vigorous than what I have been posting thus far. He was vigorous in his approach, though not intrusive in his antics. He stayed in place, he did not dance around as some conductors today do, but he made no secret about what he wanted by his facial expressions and hand and arm movements.
Ormandy once dislocated his shoulder while conducting a piece, and his doctor warned him to take it easier, advice which he ignored until just a couple of years before his retirement.
The other thing that is remarkable about this video is that Ormandy is conducting this piece a relatively short time after he and his wife were involved in a serious auto accident that nearly took their lives. You would never know it here, however. From the time of the accident onward he experienced excruciating pain in his hip. Eventually in 1970 he had hip replacement surgery, but the pain never fully went away. Still, you would never know it.
This piece is Beethoven's Eighth Symphony and was performed with Eugene Ormandy as guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic in Austria in 1963. Beethoven's music is so deeply emotional that you will see a wide range of emotion on Ormandy's face. Beethoven liked vigorous, booming, pulsating sounds, and when Ormandy is drawing forth these sounds at the beginning he looks angry. Of course, some music critics claim that Beethoven was, indeed, angry when he wrote many of his works. But then, Beethoven could change on a dime and move into some of the most beautiful tones imaginable. You will see Ormandy move with it, with his characteristic smiles, sometimes with an impish grin as he lifts his finger to his lips to tell the musicians to quieten down and "shhhh."
By the way, attached to this video is another treasure of historic significance. Here Ormandy also performs Mozart with the Vienna Philharmonic, but there is a special treat that I did not realize was on this particular video. I had seen this on other video and had planned to do a post just on it. This is Rudolf Serkin on the piano. Needless to say it is out of this world. To my way of thinking, Serkin ranks right up there with Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rachmoninoff, and others who were considered the best of the 20th century. Serkin was truly a treasure as you can see here after the Beethoven piece is finished.
This video to me is a treasure. An historic recording of an historic piece of music, written by a musical genius, and conducted by another musical genius. Enjoy...