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Conductor Christoph Eschenbach (photo by Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Orchestra Association)
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A THOROUGHLY MODERN ORCHESTRA
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Stokowski's almost fanatical devotion to contemporary music was not ideologically restricted when it came to living composers; he only wanted to get as much of this music into his audiences' ears as he could. The list of names alone is staggering: works by Bruch, Busoni, Carlos Chávez, Enesco, de Falla, Hindemith, Louríe, Gian Franco Malipiero, Poulenc, Ravel, Sibelius (his last three symphonies), Karol Szymanowski, Varèse, Villa-Lobos, and Kurt Weill. Stokowski didn't stint on rebellious Americans either, including works by Henry Cowell, father of the tone cluster, and Leo Ornstein. In the often-overlooked area of selecting musicians, Stokowski hired some of the orchestra's finest, including oboist Marcel Tabuteau in 1915 and flutist William Kinkaid in 1921, who both became icons.

Leopold Stokowski shared podium duties with the newcomer, Eugene Ormandy, until Ormandy took over the reins in 1938. Ormandy knew a good thing when he heard it, and didn't tinker with the Philadelphia sound Stoki had established. The two conductors engaged in a bit of one-upmanship during those years, with Ormandy premiering his transcription of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" in 1937 and Stokowski replying with his own in 1939.

A rarity among major symphony conductors, Ormandy didn't study conducting formally. He came to the United States in hopes of establishing a career as a violinist, but was cheated by his manager and had to scramble for theater orchestra work, where he quickly advanced to the front of the section. In the absence of the regular conductor, he found himself in front of a theater orchestra one night, and was discovered by a promoter. He honed his trade in front of radio and TV orchestras, which surely ingrained a listener-friendly, must-entertain-the-audience sensibility. He once said that his ideal program was 25 percent modern composers and 75 percent "great 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century masters."

For all his show biz experience, Ormandy continued to lead the orchestra in rich music-making, with many recordings and extensive touring. He continued the orchestra's long association with Rachmaninoff, premiering the three-movement "Symphonic Dances," Rachmaninoff's final work, in 1941.

Even before Riccardo Muti began his directorship in 1980, he wondered aloud about the Philadelphia sound: "It's a marketing tool, isn't it?" The method of Ormandy was not for him; the orchestra's sound would change. He took some of the padding out of that famed sound, but kept up the extensive recording of his predecessors, adding frequent performances of Italian opera.

Wolfgang Sawallisch's appointment in 1990 surprised many, on account of his age -- he was 72 -- and his temperament as a throwback to the old school, specializing in German masters. His tenure began with the 1992-1993 season and continued through 2002. The surprises gave way to many thrilling moments, including the orchestra's first performance of Britten's "War Requiem" and a powerful recording of Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis," "Nobilissima Visione," and "Mathis der Maler" symphony. Sawallisch also hired the brilliant trumpeter David Bilger as principal in 1995.

Sawallisch was succeeded by another German, Christoph Eschenbach, in 2003. Eschenbach brings a wide-ranging knowledge to the position, and if he can be said to have a specialty, it would be big spectacles like Mahler's "Symphony No. 8" ("Symphony of a Thousand"). He has already begun incorporating some of his favorite living composers, including the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie, into the orchestra's repertoire, and will no doubt continue to do so.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has stood for the highest level of achievement for virtually its entire existence. As this broadcast shows, its place on that exalted plane shows no signs of faltering.



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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