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Conductor Christoph Eschenbach (photo by Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Orchestra Association)
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By Marc Geelhoed

From its official founding in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra has strived for world-class achievement from a foundation of Germanic strength. This immigrant city, old by the standards of much of the country, harbors an orchestra that began as Old Worldly as could be and eventually became a premiere center of musical and technological progress. Conductors such as Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy made the orchestra and "the Philadelphia sound" household phrases in a time when "the media" consisted of radio, network TV, and the movie house. The orchestra moved farther away from America's mid-century under Riccardo Muti, an Italian who brought many operas and their fiery passions to the City of Brotherly Love. Succeeding Muti were Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach, German conductors and pianists both.

The orchestra grew out of the city's Germania Orchestra and was renamed in 1900. Fritz Scheel, its first conductor, led the rehearsals in German and filled concerts with music from his homeland. His desire was to bring the repertoire of Germany, then as now considered the backbone of the orchestra's music, to America and to play it at as high a level as in his native country. A stern taskmaster, Scheel fired half of the orchestra after its first season and replaced it with European players. It was just this sort of practice that encouraged the formation of musicians' unions. Regardless, Scheel and his successor Carl Pohlig are responsible for giving the orchestra its footing in the standard repertoire.

Pohlig took over in 1907, following Scheel's death. He had a broader base than Scheel, and included much French, Russian, and Scandinavian music on his programs. He also scored a coup by inviting the young Sergei Rachmaninoff to make his American conducting debut with the orchestra in 1909. Following an extramarital affair with his Swedish secretary, Pohlig resigned from the orchestra and left in disgrace in 1912.

The orchestra board then hired Leopold Stokowski, who would hold sway until 1936 and usher the Philadelphia Orchestra into the modern era. "Stoki," as he's affectionately known even today, was born in England in 1882 and died there as well, in 1977. A born showman savvy about the latest technology, he gave the orchestra a distinct sound that was literally unheard of, a sound not tethered to the European tradition. Stokowski thought of the orchestra as an organ whose volume he could adjust at will. He relied on a rich base of strings for support, and instituted the practice of free-bowing, with the string players bowing independently of one another.

Concertgoers today can still hear some of Stokowski's transcriptions of J. S. Bach and, somewhat rarer, Richard Wagner. Like another conductor, Gustav Mahler, Stoki aimed to make these composers sound up-to-date and modern, and no one can say that his transcription of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" doesn't sound like the whiz-bang Art Deco era looked.

Stokowski's other contributions included forays into recording, then in its infancy, and contemporary music. Stokowski was a broad-minded populist who wanted everyone to hear music, so it was fortuitous that recording was about to be both able to produce a reasonable facsimile of an orchestra and widely distributed. He led many of the orchestra's children's concerts and insisted that audiences become familiar with contemporary works. (As is revealed in his interview, this sentiment is shared by the current music director, Christoph Eschenbach.) And, of course, Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra in that ultimate introduction to symphonic sound, Disney's "Fantasia."

Top banner photos: An exterior view of Carnegie Hall (photo by Don Perdue), cellist Yo-Yo Ma (photo by Timothy White), and soprano Renée Fleming (photo: Decca/Andrew Eccles).

Conductor Christoph Eschenbach

Leading the Philadelphia Orchestra is conductor Christoph Eschenbach (photo by Chris Lee).

The Philadelphia Orchestra

The Philadelphia Orchestra celebrates the season opening with an all-Richard Strauss program (photo by Jessica Griffin).

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