Eugene Ormandy, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years, died of pneumonia yesterday in Philadelphia. He was 85.
Mr. Ormandy, who retired at the end of the 1979-1980 season and became the Philadelphia's conductor laureate, had been in failing health for several years. In the last year, he had been confined to his home because of a cardiac problem.
During its years under Mr. Ormandy, the orchestra was regarded by many as the ultimate in orchestral playing, known around the world as "the Philadelphia sound."
Mr. Ormandy's last concert was with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 10, 1984. It was said to be an act of determination on the ailing conductor's part because he wanted to conclude his career where, as a young violinist in the pit orchestra at New York's old Capital Theater, he had attended the rehearsals of renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini. He regarded the concert as a symbolic return to the start of his conducting career.
Mr. Ormandy's last appearance here was 10 months earlier, in March 1983, with the National Symphony Orchestra. Because of the Philadelphia Orchestra's yearly series of concerts here over the years, Mr. Ormandy was more familiar to Washington audiences than any other conductor, excepting the NSO's music directors.
His successor, Riccardo Muti, reached in Munich, called Mr. Ormandy's death "a very difficult moment. Maestro Ormandy had vision for this orchestra. This vision extended from young people and students to the entire city of Philadelphia. It was to make this orchestra serve the cultural life, to be the greatest and best loved, to contribute to the world through its music-making."
His longtime friend, NSO music director Mstislav Rostropovich, said in a statement: "Eugene Ormandy was one of the epochal figures in music. I am proud of knowing him and learning from him. I am especially touched by his connection with Russian music. He gave the American premieres of many works by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. I made my first recording with an American conductor with Eugene Ormandy in Shostakovich's presence. I am especially grateful from my Russian heart for his friendship and his musical bond with Rachmaninoff. I cannot imagine the history of American music without Eugene Ormandy, and the more than 40 years of his life that he devoted to the Philadelphia Orchestra."
The NSO will dedicate Thursday's concert to Mr. Ormandy.
Mr. Ormandy was born in Hungary and retained a slight accent, but his career on the podium was an American one because it began and developed here. He once remarked that he was "born in New York at the age of 22."
He had come to the United States the previous year for what was supposed to be a virtuoso tour (he was an accomplished violinist), supposedly sponsored by two agents who heard him play in Vienna in 1920. One was a liquor salesman and the other a dentist. They offered 300 concerts at $30,000. But when he arrived, there was nothing.
So, in December 1921, down and out in a strange country, he found a vacancy in the pit of New York's old Capital, run by S.L. (Roxy) Rothafel. He began as the last seat of the second violins at $60 a week, from which he hoped to launch a solo career. Within a week, Mr. Ormandy was the concertmaster. He held that job for 2 1/2 years -- four shows a day, seven days a week.
Then came his break as a conductor. In September 1924, he arrived at 1:45 for the 2 o'clock show, and the manager declared, "Roxy says that you have to conduct. " So he did, including a capsule version of the Tchaikovsky Fourth, which became one of the most familiar works of his career. It was at that point that he started sitting in on Toscanini's rehearsals at the Philharmonic. Free-lance assignments began to come his way.
He attracted the attention of famed agent and orchestral broker Arthur Judson at a dance recital of Isadora Duncan's adopted daughter, Anna.
At that point he resigned from the Capital and Judson became his agent.
Judson also owned the Judson Radio Corp., an early radio network. For a while he was conducting for such programs as the Dutch Masters Hour and Jack Frost Melody Moments.
Mr. Ormandy also went out on the summer outdoor concert circuit, which included a stop at New York's Lewisohn Stadium.
He first came to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930, for its summer concerts at Robin Hood Dell.
The next step made Eugene Ormandy. One day in October 1931, Judson called him, by Mr. Ormandy's account, and said, "Gene, there's a vacancy in Philadelphia this week, but it could be suicide for you."
No less a figure than Toscanini had pulled out for the week, and the simple fact was that management could not find a conductor who dared step into the footsteps of Toscanini conducting the Philadelphia, whose music director at that time was the equally famed Leopold Stokowski.
"He told me frankly he wouldn't blame me for turning it down later," Mr. Ormandy recalled later. "But I took it. I had everything to gain and nothing to lose."
It was so well received that it was the first step to Mr. Ormandy replacing Stokowski six years later.
But it also led to another extraordinary opportunity.
In the audience was an agent for the Minneapolis Symphony, which had just lost its conductor. The agent was so impressed that he invited Mr. Ormandy to come to Minnesota immediately. Mr. Ormandy arrived there on a Monday and had a five-year contract by Wednesday.
Because the orchestra offered unusually generous financial conditions for recording companies (no extra compensation for the sessions), Mr. Ormandy and the Minneapolis became the most frequently recorded combination in the country, on RCA. They produced such rarities as the first Bruckner Seventh and the first Scho nberg "Verkla rte Nacht."
Over the course of his career, he was a prodigious recording artist. According to the Philadelphia Orchestra, Mr. Ormandy conducted 585 separate recordings with that orchestra alone. Some of them were the financial backbone of the Columbia Records catalogue for decades. Most are still in circulation and bring in millions of dollars a year.
Mr. Ormandy's move to Philadelphia came in 1936. The brilliant and mercurial Leopold Stokowski had led the orchestra for more than two decades. He built it to greatness and used it dramatically as the launching pad for many contemporary classics, sometimes to the consternation of the conservative board. And Stokowski kept laying down the career gauntlet.
So there was an agreement that there would be a new music director, who would share the orchestra with Stokowski, a potentially difficult relationship.
Mr. Ormandy, who was popular in Philadelphia, was one of several considered for the job, and he was chosen.
His first concert was Oct. 9, 1936, For the next five years he and Stokowski worked together. It was quite amicable because Mr. Ormandy made it that way. He said that he was quite willing to give Stokowski first choice on all repertory. "After all there was plenty more left," he once remarked.
By 1941 the board and Stokowski became utterly at odds, and he departed.
Another potential problem was whether Mr. Ormandy had the skills to maintain the orchestra's playing at its fabulous level. It turned out that if there was anything at which Mr. Ormandy was ultimately triumphant it was in doing that -- some would argue it actually got better. And it was when this became apparent that the long shadow of Leopold Stokowski disappeared.
In the '60s, in fact, it was Mr. Ormandy who finally insisted on the return as a regular guest of Stokowski, dispite misgivings on the board.
Mr. Ormandy conceded that his programming was less adventurous than Stokowski's, though he played more contemporary music in his later years.
Mr. Ormandy was born in Budapest, the son of an amateur violinist, Benjamin Ormandy.
Mr. Ormandy was a violin prodigy at 3 and entered the Budapest Royal Academy at 5 as its youngest student. He received his B.A. at 14, and soon started touring Hungary. Then he moved to central Europe.
He became an American citizen in 1927.
Among his honors were the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor, the Order of the British Empire and dozens of others. He was one of the Kennedy Center Honorees in 1983.
His marriage to Steffy Goldner ended in divorce. His second wife, Margaret (Gretel) Ormandy, whom he married in 1950, was at his side at his death.
He is also survived by two brothers, Martin and Laszlo Ormandy.