110. Ormandy as I Knew Him

During the Spring of 1967 I made the decision to resign from the University of Montana in order to explore orchestral conducting. Actually I had at this time an offer to become the conductor of the civic orchestra of a mid-sized Midwestern town, but I was not interested in the realm of civic orchestras. Both at Michigan and at Washington, D.C. I had many opportunities to be paid for a rehearsal and concert to fill in as a horn player with such orchestras which allowed me to observe the extensive work such conductors had with regard to raising money, social appearances of all kinds, etc. In fact I once had an interview with the board of the Erie, NY, orchestra. The first question I was asked was, “Where did you go to college?” Michigan sufficed, but the next question was, “Which fraternity were you active in?” This, and following questions, clearly demonstrated that they were not concerned about the quality of artistic contribution I would bring to Erie, they were only intended to discover how I would “fit in” in their social life. Finally, they asked if I had any questions and I replied, “You have not asked a single question about Music – how do you know if I am even a conductor?” Their answer was that they assumed I was or I would not have come for an interview.

The real reason I was not interested in making a career at this level was because it was evident that no conductor, no matter how successful, ever worked his way up to a higher level; there was a clear separation between community orchestras and the true professional ones. Therefore I made the decision, which seems outrageous in retrospect, to either make it at the top or not at all. It seemed to me that the best route was to introduce myself to some of the major orchestras and to seek some sort of assistant conductor position. One visit was with Sixten Ehrling, the Swedish conductor of the Detroit Symphony from 1963 to 1993. He was a very highly respected international conductor with vast experience, but I found him in 1967 to be exhausted and being quite frustrated by the work of constantly having to memorize contemporary scores. He was definitely in the mood to hire someone to help and I was immediately alarmed that this position might require more repertoire than I had. By that I mean this: if I were asked, “Do you know Beethoven’s Third Symphony?” I would of course instantly say “yes.” But “yes” meant I knew it as a listener, whereas knowing it as a conductor was an entirely different matter. What, for example, is the precise tempo I would want to begin the Adagio movement? As a player this question never occurs for you just worry about your own playing and you take whatever tempo the conductor wants to take. So if the principal conductor were to become ill and the assistant had to suddenly take over several weeks of concerts, that might involve more literature than I could instantly learn.

I left Ehrling with a strong interest expressed by both of us and then traveled to Washington for an interview with Howard Mitchell, conductor of the National Symphony. He had indicated that I should meet him after a particular rehearsal in Constitution Hall. The players all had their cases and coats in a room in the basement and as I entered they were making their way down a set of stairs from the stage. I was immediately struck by the fact they were progressing in deathly silence, whereas normally after a rehearsal the players are full of enthusiasm, talking and laughing. After a moment or two observing this there was a sudden very loud scream from above on the stage – this was the conductor.

I climbed the stairs and knocked on a door which identified his studio thereby initiating one of the most bizarre exhibitions I have ever witnessed. He ripped the door open in a rage but then on seeing it was someone not expected he instantly lowered his voice to a very obsequious and pleasant level to welcome me. It turned out that the regular librarian was out on sick leave and an orchestra member graciously volunteered to hand out and collect music but had mistakenly produced the wrong set of parts. Now there was a knock at the maestro’s door and this volunteer appeared. Mitch immediately began yelling at this poor fellow, explaining to me what happened in a very loud and angry voice, picking up a chair and throwing it against a wall and slamming the door. Then, again, in an instant change of character, he continued our conversation in the most pleasant and courteous manner as if nothing had happened. While this had the effect of my doubting whether I wanted anything to do with this position, on the other hand next there was an extraordinary moment where it seemed that perhaps this were a perfect opportunity for he exclaimed with the greatest enthusiasm his joy in the fact that I apparently was a physical double of his own son! It seemed he was ready to hire me just to have me around.

I cancelled an appointment in Cleveland with George Szell, who had a position open, because I heard that he demanded piano skill.

In the end I chose to become associated with a much greater orchestra and conductor. I had been recommended to Ormandy by Milton Katims in Seattle and also by the head of the Philadelphia School Music Program who was a friend of Ormandy. The actual meeting was organized by Mason Jones, the principal horn with whom I had studied during the Summer of 1957. Ormandy began the meeting by commenting that an important conductor was someone who had an innate deep genius within him. “Do you have that?” I responded, “Some people say I do.” With that Ormandy welcomed my coming to Philadelphia, but warned that he had never before had a student and that he would not be able to promise that he could do anything at all to advance my career.

For one thing, Ormandy had no time for students. He told me that in this 1967–1968 season he would conduct 200 concerts, counting repetitions of the regular series concerts! In addition, the orchestra was doing a lot of recording in the afternoons. So there would be on some Mondays, a morning rehearsal for the music of the coming weekend series, completely different music to be recorded in the afternoon and in the evening the final concert of the previous week’s series, again completely different music.

These afternoon recording sessions, instigated by Columbia Records often consisted of re-recording a small portion of music to replace the same portion which could be from a concert years ago. The principal oboist told me that on one occasion he had to record the ending of an oboe solo recorded years earlier by his teacher! Ormandy told me a great trick, which I made use of the following year when I recorded some orchestras in Europe. The issue is, if you are going to re-record bars 100–120 of some performance made years earlier, how does the conductor know how to produce the exact needed tempo allowing for a perfect splice? How does the conductor know what tempo was used in the years ago performance. Here is Ormandy’s secret trick. You tell the recording engineer to play back the earlier recording from years ago in order that the current musicians can match the pitch of the earlier musicians, a perfectly reasonable request, appreciated by the current musicians. But the secret reason is that in that playback of the recording from years earlier the entire orchestra also hear the original tempo. Ormandy says all the conductor needs to do is give a downbeat and that the current players will unconsciously play the same tempo they had just heard in the previous passage.

Ormandy was more than an outstanding musician, sometimes accomplishing things which bordered on pure genius. On one week, for example, the series of concerts featured a visiting violinist from some place in Russia, appearing through Columbia Artists, performing with several orchestras on her tour of the US. The musician’s union in Philadelphia had made a requirement that no performance could last longer than a certain number of minutes, musicians warming up on stage before the concert and intermission did not count against this limit. However applause did count and as a result sometimes the orchestra had to cut very short the applause in order to meet the time limit. If the time limit was exceeded the orchestra management had to pay triple overtime to the players. So, Ormandy kept for 30 years a notebook which listed his performance times for much literature so that in planning a program he could avoid running over the time limit, In the example I was beginning to give, the program consisted of only two works, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with the Russian lady, and the Bruckner Fourth Symphony. Although Ormandy knew nothing about this Russian violinist, still the Mendelssohn violin concerto is one of the most frequently performed works for violin and Ormandy felt that no matter what liberties she took it would fit with the Bruckner to make the time limit.

This Russian violinist appeared for the first time for the Friday morning rehearsal. Ormandy did not think it necessary to discuss the performance with her in advance and so out she walked, shook Ormandy’s hand and the orchestra began to play. When the moment came for her to play, she suddenly began playing an extremely slow version of the concerto. Was she from some distant outpost in Russia where she had never heard this concerto?

They played the entire concerto and then Ormandy called for a rest stop and he came out into the hall where I was sitting with the assistant conductor, who was timing this run through on his stopwatch. Ormandy asked how much over was it? The assistant conductor said, Maestro it is 5 minutes too long [to avoid the time requirement]. What are you going to do, Maestro? Ormandy thought for a while and then replied, “I will take five minutes off the Bruckner!” In my young idealized state of mind, I could not believe I heard this! Normally I never stayed to hear the Friday afternoon concert, the infamous “Society ladies concert,” but in this case I came back after lunch, with my stopwatch sitting in Ormandy’s box to witness this performance. To my utter amazement, the Bruckner was five minutes faster than his traditional performance time, however, at no time was I aware of a faster tempo, even though I knew in advance what he was going to do and had been hearing this music all week in rehearsal. It was an amazing demonstration of his genius in being able to look from first note to the last over the entire architecture and slice off tiny bits of time all along. I am sure the orchestra was unaware of what had happened.

In spite of his great talent there was within him a certain insecurity. His comment that he could not be concerned about my career reflected some concern about his own career in Philadelphia. At that moment he was in his 31st year as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra but on the basis of 31 one-year contracts. Further he told me that rather than having a home in Philadelphia he lived in a hotel, traveling to Philadelphia from his home in the Berkshires the night before the first rehearsal of the season and departed the morning after the final concert in late May. The purpose of this was to avoid the orchestra and management from feeling that they “owned” him. It was clear that this arrangement gave him some sort of confidence that he could thereby remain valued year after year.

He was also insecure about programming any new composition, fearing that he might make some horrible mistake which would lead to his being embarrassed by the critics But, of course while he would have never done this, he protected himself by only doing a contemporary work if he had before hand an “air check,” a recording of someone else performing the work. He was, by the way, apparently always criticized by the press whenever he did Baroque music and he asked me why that was.

He was also curiously insecure about his height, even though I don’t think anyone would have considered him a particularly short person. More than once he would come up to me, of very average 5’ 11” height, and say, “It must be nice to be a big person!” I, of course, thought he was the biggest person in the world, internationally famous and wealthy! When there was a guest soloist on a concert, when the performance was concluded and it was expected he would shake hands with the soloist, he would do this only by remaining on the podium and forcing the soloist to come to him to shake hands, reasoning that if he stepped down to the floor level the audience would see the he was shorter than the soloist.

He also, as I quickly discovered in my discussion with him, was very insecure in discussing music in technical terms. A word like “recapitulation,” seemed like a foreign concept. He understood music on an experiential level, not on a notational level. A perfect illustration of this occurred one week when Ormandy had programmed an unfinished Bartok work that someone had finished. At the first rehearsal the orchestra simply read the work, with Ormandy looking at the score and giving small perfunctory beats. After they came to the end, Ormandy requested the orchestra to play it again. This time the beginnings of an interpretation could be heard, on the basis of Ormandy’s having just heard it once and not on the basis of score study.

Ormandy freely loaned me his scores, where he had made extensive markings, allowing me to see what he was feeling. I could see in his bow markings the famous “Philadelphia string sound.” It was extraordinary for me to see that he would take the time to mark every up and down bow throughout every composition. This even though he had one of the most famous group of string players and even though most of the markings fell into what they would call “traditional bowings.” He had two librarians who would then mark all these bowings into the parts before the first rehearsal. I asked him why it was worth his time to do this and he said that otherwise there would inevitably be cases where the concertmaster would prefer a different bowing and therefore much valuable rehearsal time would be taken by the discussion. He said if, on the other hand, they saw the bowings marked on the parts they would play them without question.

It was particularly interesting to observe how he maintained psychological control over these great players. At the beginning of the season the management, in order for the players to plan their schedules, gave each player a pocket calendar with all the dates for rehearsals and concerts, including the repertoire, for three years ahead! It happened while I was present there came a situation when on a particular day on a tour several months ahead Ormandy needed to add an additional rehearsal. Accordingly he explained to the orchestra why this extra rehearsal was needed and asked if this would be a problem for any of the members. About a dozen players raised their hands, including the principal oboist, a very important and influential member of the orchestra. Ormandy then proceeded to ask individual members what the nature of their problem was. He began with the most insecure member of the group, a new young member who had a dinner planned with his wife’s parents, but on Ormandy’s request he agreed he could change this. Ormandy continued, one by one, saving for last the principal oboist, who, after everyone else agreed to change their plans, was left in a position that he could not be the only person to prevent this added rehearsal.

It was also for psychological reasons the Ormandy dwelt with individuals in private rather than during rehearsal. I was in his office one day when a trombonist came in wanting a raise in pay. Without direct reference to the request Ormandy asked this trombonist if he remembered he missed a note in a concert last year in Kansas City when they were on tour. The player left empty-handed.

Our discussions included a number of very interesting private stories, beginning with his discovery by the famous New York agent, Sol Hurok. The story as published was that the regular conductor became ill and Ormandy substituted on short notice. Ormandy, however, told me that he got a phone call that morning from the regular conductor who was in a hotel in New Jersey with a lady and begged Ormandy to substitute.

Ormandy also gave me his candid views on current conductors. Von Karajan was the only one he refused to go hear because of Karajan’s habit of conducting with his eyes closed. Ormandy said if he went to hear him and saw that, he would walkout, causing an international scandal.

Ormandy recalled that all young conductors held Toscanini in the greatest respect. Toscanini had left New York over a dispute saying he would never come back, but to everyone’s surprise he came back in 1936. Ormandy wanted to hear his first rehearsal which was to be held in Carnegie Hall. Knowing Toscanini never allowed visitors to his rehearsals, Ormandy climbed to the top balcony, which had a little wall behind which he could hide. He got on his hands and knees and crawled along behind that wall when suddenly he bumped into something. He looked up and saw every conductor in New York hiding there on hands and knees!

My association with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra involved no salary for myself, but there were some fringe benefits such as a music store who donated to me a grand piano for my apartment for the year. The main financial support came from my wife, Giselle, who was hired for the year by Villanova University as a professor of Spanish. I am very grateful that she could volunteer to be the “bread winner” this year and also the following year in Vienna, to allow me the freedom to “drop out” from the university business to explore something else.

I also did a little teaching while in Philadelphia, conducting a brass choir at Temple University during the Fall Semester and doing some private horn teaching at the Settlement Music School. However, the most interesting extra income came from my doing some odd jobs for the Presser Company, a music publisher which was located just minutes from my apartment out on “Mainline” Philadelphia.

My association with Presser began with proofreading. I was given galley sheets for publications in progress, which had already been proofed by two other professionals on the staff. It was amazing to me that, as the third person to proofread, I could still find mistakes missed by the other two professionals. When I asked how this was possible, the director of publications, Calvert Bean, replied,

“Nothing proves Human Frailty like Proofreading!”

I was also given some editorial assignments. One of these involved a Symphony which Presser was going to publish by Jean Martinon, who at this time was serving as the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In his autograph score he had carefully marked slurs to indicate phrasing for the string players but he had left all the wind parts unmarked. I was paid to edit all the wind and percussion parts in the score and I am sure the composer never knew about it.

The most unusual project given me by Cal Bean followed an urgent phone call for me to run over see him at Presser. When I arrived he explained that the very well-known American composer, William Schuman, had been commissioned to write a band work for the dedication of the great new Arch in St. Louis and that he had been paid half of the fee in advance and then had forgotten all about the commission. The Army Band, who was to premiere this work at the ceremony, called up Presser and asked where the music was, for they needed to have some rehearsal time before flying to St. Louis. So when I arrived at Cal Bean’s office he handed me a slip of paper upon which an address in New York City was written and asked me to jump on a train and make the two-hour trip to see Schuman.

William Schuman was at the time the Director of the yet to be built Lincoln Center and his temporary office was in the American Bible Society Building. When I arrived he handed me a small bound manuscript book upon which he had sketched out the band piece. He explained that at that time he often composed while driving to the center of New York, using his windshield wiper as a metronome. He apologized about forgetting this commission, explaining that he was also behind in writing a new Symphony, and that he needed me to finish the composition. I first asked what instrumentation he had in mind for the band and he replied to get his score of “Chester” at Presser and to use that instrumentation because all the band directors liked that composition. Looking at the first page of his manuscript in the little book I saw first a single unaccompanied line of music with an occasional three voice chord expressed in whole notes. I asked him, “What did you have in mind for this opening line? Is it a solo oboe, or a solo trumpet, or unison clarinets, or what?” He replied, “You can do whatever you want, but just use my notes.”

I had never done anything like this, but I agreed to give it a try and took the score back home where I scored a couple of pages to return to New York to show him. He was very upset, for in making a passage for full band I had taken that three-member chord and spread it out, doubling it an octave above for woodwinds and an octave below for low brass. “You have written notes I did not write! Take it home and try again!” I have to acknowledge my lack of skill at this point for my own composition, Opus One, was yet twenty years in the future. However, what bothered me most was the fact that what I was being asked to do seemed to me to cross the line and be decisions appropriate to a composer, not an arranger.

After another day of thinking about this project I went back to Calvert Bean and told him that I just did not feel I had the ability to do this composition. Bean understood and he assigned the project to another employee who wrote the piece and it was published under the name of Schuman. I was employed to help copy parts and to drive the score and parts down to Washington to give them to the Army Band. In the end, the Army Band flew to St. Louis, but sat in a bus while a great rain storm cancelled the ceremony! So after all of that, the piece was never played!

I could not help but think that after years of teaching conducting students to accept the responsibility to try to determine what the composer was thinking, perhaps the more basic question was “Who wrote the music?”