Eugene Ormandy brought his Philadelphia Orchestra to the Kennedy Center last night for the only concert they will give together here during the current season. One calls this extraordinary ensemble his well aware that last night's event was the first time in 45 years of regular seasons in this city that Ormandy has not appeared as its music director. With his 81st birthday only a few weeks off, Ormandy has scaled down his responsibilities and taken the title conductor laureate.
Last night, this change mattered not a whit.For one thing, the Philadelphia Orchestra is literally his; he chose every single player in it. And, with his perfect pitch and his ear for sonorities, Ormandy has personally cultivated its ultra-refined sound. Extra power is always in reserve; no splashy effects are sought; the pure tone in all departments is so bright that balances seem to come naturally. That is the paradox of the Philadelphia Orchestra -- everything seems to happen so smoothly that, of all things, it sounds almost easy to do.
The emotional centerpiece of last night's concert was the grim, awesome and lengthy slow movement that opens Shostakovich's 6th Symphony. What other orchestra could play the pianissimo trills that thread through the movement like nerves stretched to the breaking point with such precision and beautiful tone? And where else would one hear the increasingly hysterical, neurotic romp of the last movement executed with such dash?
After intermission came that exercise in lyric grace, the Chopin 1st Concerto, with the young Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. His phrasing, as well as the orchestra's, caught the ripe plaintiveness of early romanticism. One quibble: between Ax's delicate, sometimes whispering sound and the considerable size of the orchestra, a good bit of his no doubt brilliantly articulated passage work went unheard. Perhaps a compromise was needed: the soloist should project the sound more, and Ormandy should reduce the cellos by two and the basses by one.