Phyllis White Rodriguez-Peralta’s lovingly told survey of three legendary conductors of one of the great American orchestras is lovingly told. Her joy at having been ‘part of’ the story is palpable, even if her writing is a bit wooden and the volume occasionally flirts with hagiography.
The author describes ‘the Philadelphia sound’ in this way:
Everyone has heard about the ‘Philadelphia sound’, a phrase that usually refers to the lushness of the strings and is associated particularly with Ormandy. This ‘sound’, however, really varies according to the conductor, the composer, and the venue. The seeds were sown by Stokowski, flowered with Ormandy, were strictly cultivated by Muti, and flowered again, but with more definition, under Sawallisch. Eschenbach’s influence (White Rodriguez-Peralta published this work in 2006) is just beginning.
This paragraph is pregnant of the author’s telling, particularly the hint that Muti represents something of a hiatus in the orchestra’s tradition.
It is astonishing that the Orchestra was led by only six principal conductors for the duration of the twentieth century. This idiosyncratic longevity on the podium creates a context for partisans of this or another version of ‘the sound’ who hold and express their views with a certain ferocity.
For this quite amateur appreciator of classical music, I find the principal value of Philadelphia Maestros to lie in the peek it affords us behind the curtain and into the complex constellation of musical gifts and personalities that constitute the source of a great orchestra’s music across the longue durée of its tradition.
Tradition, it seems to me, is the right word, and a venerable one at that. A conductor comes to a place like Philadelphia as a custodian or a steward of this tradition. His (or her) license to reshape what has been given by the preceding decades is finite. The author helps us to understand how a conductor’s individuality vis-à-vis ‘the Philadelphia’s’ tradition played out during the reigns of Ormandy, Muti, and Sawallisch.
Some glimpses are riveting:
Always very strict, Muti was particularly adamant about sticking to the composer’s text, and sometimes a singer reacted against his removal of an expected high note or expected trills and ornamentation because they were not in the original score. He once told Pavarotti, ‘Either sing what Bellini wrote or find yourself a new conductor’.
The enmity between Abaddo and Muti was well known, although its origin has never been disclosed by either one. Perhaps it has something to do with the subtle prejudices between northern and southern Italy.
In the following September, at the official welcoming ceremony for Sawallisch and his wife, Mechthild, he said to the festive crowd, ‘We are Philadelphians.’ Obviously recalling President Kennedy’s words in Berlin, he seemed, also, to be offering assurance that he would devote his primary efforts and attention to the Philadelphia Orchestra.
White Rodriguez-Peralta’s most effusive admiration is indeed directed towards Wolfgang Sawallisch, who died in 2013, seven years after this book’s publication. This book of light reading on the Orchestra’s directors shines a light on how iconic such a role becomes. Musical mastery is only a precursor to the effective work of the great conductor.
The author’s service lies in helping us to appreciate that fact as we listen to and, just occasionally, gasp at the beauty of that sound.