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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Philadelphia Story

By Norman Lebrecht / April 21, 2004

It doesn’t take much, or very long, to bring down a great orchestra. My CD shelves are strewn with their sunken hulks.

Anyone who, like me, bought into classical music 30 years ago will have got their Haydn symphonies from the Philharmonica Hungarica, their Stravinsky from the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, their Elgar from the Halle and their Rachmaninov, like easy-spread cream cheese, from Philadelphia. Where are they now, these ocean-spanning ensembles?

The Hungarica have gone out of business, the Suisse Romande and Halle have returned to provincial inconsequence, And as for Philadelphia, well, that’s the saddest, farthest fall of all.

Philadelphia was the orchestra that set the standard for symphonic recording. Under Leopold Stokowski in the 1920s, it trademarked the Philadelphia Sound, an aural identity card that successfully transcended the inadequacies of acoustic transference onto shellac platters. It was a direct, no-frills sound, bright and loud, a tad sweet and thick for modern dietary tastes, but texturally solid and inspiring automatic confidence.

When Stoki went to Hollywood in 1938 to make Fantasia for Disney, he yielded the Philadelphia baton to Eugene Ormandy, a Hungarian of low charismatic voltage but exceptional conservationist skills. Ormandy maintained the brand for 42 years, into the stereo and digital eras, a consistency that can be traced by ear from Rachmaninov's haunting recordings of his own concertos (reissued on Naxos CDs) through to Ormandy's valedictory Tchaikovsky Fifth in 1983.

A sound freak who hardly ever took a break for fear some visiting maestro might tamper with his precious timbre, Ormandy considered himself not much more than primus inter pares. His Philadelphia Sound - unlike Karajan’s manicured tone in Berlin or Solti’s blare in Chicago - was not the product of one controlling intelligence but the corporate endowment of four generations of musicians, many of whom came to the city as scholarship students at its Curtis Institute and stayed on for life as professors and orchestral players.

Ormandy's heirs barely tinkered with the blend. Riccardo Muti added Italianate glitter in the 1980s and Wolfgang Sawallallisch in the following decade burnished a Brahmsian glow. Philadelphia, throughout these transitions, continued to sound like Philadephia.

Last month I swung by the city on a book-signing tour and stopped at the cello-shaped Verizon Hall, housed within the $265 million Kimmel Center, which opened in December 2001. The Kimmel Center looks more like an upmarket shopping mall than an arts haven and the concert hall has received decidedly mixed notices, one critic calling it 'an acoustic nightmare', another 'an acoustical Sahara'. Since it was designed by Russell Johnson along similar lines to his near-perfect halls in Birmingham and Lucerne, I was curious to hear it for myself.

From where I sat, which was three rows in front of the orchestra's executive president, Joseph Kluger, I had trouble hearing the lower strings and anything resembling a fortissimo. When a Mahler-sized orchestra fails to blow a hole in the side of your head on quadruple ffff at forty paces, there is either something seriously wrong with the hall, or with the orchestra. In this case, it was both.

I could have tried a different seat, but I had heard enough. After extensive acoustic adjustments, the hall plainly fails to deliver full volume - at least when the home team in playing. Local concertgoers and critics told me they got bigger decibels from visiting bands, like the New York Philharmonic.

Volume, of course, is not everything; no-one has ever been deafened by the Vienna Philharmonic. What one listens for in a great orchestra is tone colour, a nebulous quality, like the bouquet of a good wine. What I heard in Verizon Hall, taking into account its acoustic deficiencies, was not vintage Philadelphia Sound but some vastly inferior substitute, a synthetic confection of low aesthetic appeal. My reservations had nothing to do with the musical interpretation (which I found pallid), but purely with the texture of sound - and I did not need to move around to see why. Signs of unease were evident on stage. Few of the players looked much at their energetically cavorting music director, Christoph Eschenbach. Their gaze was fixed on the music stands. Private soundings confirmed a simmering discontent.

When he was appointed in 2001, Eschenbach had not conducted Philadelphia in five years. A German pianist who took up conducting in midlife, he earned his spurs over a dozen years as music director in Houston. Desperate to find a recognisable name in a dwindling maestro pool, a fretful board of directors and its impatient chairman Richard Snoot imposed him on the musicians without consultation, or election (as is increasingly the case with enlightened orchestras).

In addition to Philadelphia, Eschenbach conducts the Orchestre de Paris and the radio orchestra in Hamburg. He cannot spare Philadelphia more than a fraction of his expensive time - though he did fly in recently for a day to secure a welcome $50 million bequest from the widow of a local newspaper magnate.

On the gleaming new podium, he looks glamorous enough in Paris-cut tails and brightly-polished shaven head, but the orchestra hardly look. They are about to embark on a ten-stop European tour, clocking in for a Barbican weekend in London on May 21. 'My partnership with these world renowned musicians is a joy,' declares the maestro in a multi-page press release, 'we look forward to sharing our musical experiences with new audiences around the world.'

What the musicians are sharing is a few dark corners, where they are starting to mutter. Unless they fall in love with their music director on this honeymoon cruise, they will (I'm told) call a strike on their return. 'In a shotgun marriage,' says one close observer, 'there's no goodwill they can fall back on. It's getting ugly.'

Now this may amount to no more than the murmurings of a few malcontents but, allied to bad body language and a definite loss of sonic distinction, it does not augur well. Touring has, from the outset, cemented the Philadelphia reputation. This may be a tour too far.

For while it only takes one conductor to make a great orchestra, one misjudged transfer is enough to secure relegation. The Hungarica faded fast after Antal Dorati, the Suisse Romande after Ernest Ansermet and the Halle after John Barbirolli. Their successors were not bad men or bad musicians. They were mostly compromise choices, panic appointments to be repented at leisure. Philadelphia, like many football teams at this time of year, finds itself facing a very long drop. The testimony of my CD shelves suggests that there is no return from orchestral oblivion.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001