now famous, certainly telling -- from the pre-Philadelphia Orchestra days of Eugene Ormandy, long ago when he directed what was then the Minneapolis Symphony:
The symphony was to record a new work, an overture by Roy Harris called "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," but the music did not arrive until the morning of the recording session. The normally even-tempered Ormandy was in a rage. He looked over the score at breakfast and then for a while after. Still angry, he threw the score on the floor, got in his car and drove off to the session.
He conducted the overture from memory.
If the great conductors of this century are like generals, then perhaps Toscanini was like Clausewitz, Beecham like Montgomery and Stokowski like Patton. But Ormandy, who died yesterday at age 85 from pneumonia, was like Ike.
He was never a "podium personality." Rather, he was moderate, patient, painstaking, a consummate craftsman more concerned with the long term than with agitation over the immediate. And above all, he was consistent. He conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for an unprecedented 44 years, until his retirement in 1980, when he became conductor emeritus. He has shaped its sound for years to come -- by the time he retired, he had personally selected every single member of the orchestra.
The same traits that characterized the man characterized his way of making music. Never flamboyant, never careless. In a generation when the conducting giants ruled by rigid dictate, Ormandy worked with the players.
The Philadelphia was regarded by many as the world's finest during the Ormandy years, and one reason was the conductor's willingness to subordinate his personal interests as a celebrity to those of the orchestra. He probably didn't separate them very much in his mind.
Several years ago, when an interviewer asked how much his attitude toward the orchestra had changed since he took over in 1937, Ormandy answered, "Well, in the early days when I heard something wrong I looked in that direction. Now I look the other way as if I didn't hear it."
Ormandy said he changed "when I realized that every member of the orchestra is just as human as I am. I make mistakes, too."
He made less than his share. And his special skills allowed the unostentatious Ormandy to build an orchestra far finer than almost any of those formed by the dictatorial breed of maestro. For one, he had an extraordinary ear.
In a television interview some time ago the normally modest Ormandy attributed part of his success to his "perfect pitch." The follow-up question was whether Toscanini, whom Ormandy admired above all other conductors, also had perfect pitch, and Ormandy replied, "Almost."
The Philadelphia's remarkable accuracy of pitch to this day is one of the legacies of that ear.
Another reason for the magnitude of his achievement in Philadelphia was his almost complete devotion to a single ensemble, rather than flying all over the map to gain glory as a guest conductor.
"It became a way of life for me," he once said, "and it is the only life in which I am happy . . . It is so easy for a conductor to communicate his ideas and wishes to them, and they play as one great Stradivarius, not as individual musicians."
In the same way, during a 1969 interview, he was concerned about the toll jet-setting music directors took on players: "This is not good for an orchestra; one of the reasons for the stature of the Philadelphia Orchestra is that it has only two conductors in 55 years. It is not good for the development of a conductor, either. Conductors grow with their own orchestras."
Ormandy brought to the orchestra the quickness of his mind and the completeness of his memory. He almost never used scores except in concertos and in contemporary works.
The strength of his straightforward interpretive style was once described by Virgil Thomson in The New York Herald Tribune:
"He wants beauty of sound and virtuosity of execution, both of them at the service of the music in complete humility."
Indeed, Ormandy never seemed to project a highly personalized interpretive style. But the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra was often unmistakable after only a few bars. The strings that are purer and richer than any others. The light, delicate, perfectly blended winds. The relatively soft brass and percussion -- all the better to blend in the whole "Philadelphia sound."
Ormandy was enormously proud of that sound. It is said that when Ormandy's handpicked successor, Riccardo Muti, brashly declared to an interviewer, "There is no Philadelphia sound," Ormandy was not pleased.
But with or without an "Ormandy style," his special musical qualities brought incomparable results to so many works -- and that especially includes romantic works with dense, tricky sonorities.
A number of works spring to mind in which this listener heard Ormandy balance, clarify and articulate complex webs of sound more successfully than any other conductor -- the notoriously tricky Schumann Second Symphony (it was a great performance in every sense), Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote," several beatific Brahms Seconds, several Prokofiev Fifths (a tangled and haunting combination of extreme lights and darks in which one cannot remember hearing another conductor even approach Ormandy's achievement).
In certain works he carried unmatched interpretive authority, particularly in Rachmaninoff. The composer would record only with the Philadelphia, which he regarded as the greatest ensemble ever formed.
Washington audiences probably heard Ormandy more often over the years than any other conductor, except music directors of the National Symphony, because of the regular series the Philadelphia has had here since this century's first decade.
But Ormandy's last concerts here, in March 1983, were as a guest with the National Symphony, ending in a blaze of glory -- in Rachmaninoff, the Second Symphony. The first night was dramatic in more than one way.
The formerly robust, smiling Ormandy moved very slowly, a pale, frail shadow of his former self -- that slight limp he acquired in a childhood sporting accident greatly aggravated. When he reached the podium, a front-row string player got up to support his arm as he stepped up.
The first half consisted of two Ormandy staples, Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 and Mozart's 40th Symphony. The playing was superb: Ormandy had a genius for making other orchestras, in a few simple rehearsals, sound a little like the Philadelphia. But there was no passion -- in what should be two very passionate pieces. One wondered if the old man just didn't have it in him anymore.
Then, after intermission, came the Rachmaninoff.
Many who heard the performance will probably never forget it. There was a sweep, plus a degree of inner detail, that Ormandy could not always have counted on even from the Philadelphia Orchestra. Repeatedly -- over those long, sad, soaring Russian melodies -- one heard timbres and subtleties that represented the conductor at the peak of his powers.
It only occurred to one later that perhaps Ormandy thought this was his last Rachmaninoff Second. And it could not be less than his best.
The last came just three months after another visit to the Kennedy Center by the failing Ormandy, when he was one of the recipients at the Fifth Kennedy Center Honors celebration. Pianist Eugene Istomin, one of Ormandy's prote'ge's, delivered a tribute:
"Eugene Ormandy -- he is very simply one of the greatest conductors of this century. His name means orchestral virtuosity . . . He's also something of a father figure to quite a few of us . . .
There was also a tribute of a different sort that seemed especially apt. Both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony were in town, and I had been assigned to interview Chicago's Sir Georg Solti. The interview was in the dining room of the Watergate, and afterward Sir Georg and his wife were headed upstairs to get coats before taking a walk. As the elevator opened, out walked Ormandy, who shouted to the junior conductor in his usual, hearty manner, "Solti, old man!"
Later, on the walk, Sir Georg was reminded of his comment when he first took the Chicago Symphony to the Philadelphia's home, the Academy of Music, for a concert: "It's like walking into the lion's den!"
Replied Sir Georg, "It still is."
Now the lion is gone.