Eugene Ormandy, born Jenő Blau in Budapest, Hungary, began studying the violin at the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music, now the Franz Liszt Academy of Music at the age of five. He gave his first concerts as a violinist at age seven, and graduated at fourteen with a master’s degree. In 1920, he obtained a university degree in philosophy. In 1921 he moved to the United States of America (taking his name from the ship on which he traveled, the SS Normandie). He worked first as a violinist in the Major Bowes Capitol Theater Orchestra in New York City. He became the concertmaster within five days of joining and became the conductor of this group which accompanied silent movies. Ormandy also made sixteen recordings as a violinist between 1923 and 1929, half of them using the acoustic process.
Arthur Judson, the most powerful manager of American classical music during the 1930s, greatly assisted Ormandy’s career. In particular, when Arturo Toscanini was too ill to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1931, Judson asked Ormandy to stand in. This led to his first major appointment as a conductor, in Minneapolis.
Eugene Ormandy may have been the most-recorded American conductor ever. His recordings spanned the acoustic to the electrical to the digital age. From 1936 until his death, Ormandy made literally hundreds of recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, spanning almost every classical-music genre. Writing in Audoin (1999), Richard Freed wrote: “Ormandy came about as close as any conductor anywhere to recording the “Complete Works of Everybody,” with more than a few works recorded three and four times to keep up with advances in technology and/or to accommodate a new soloist or to commemorate a move to a new label.”
Thomas Frost, the producer of many of Ormandy’s Columbia recordings, called Ormandy “…the easiest conductor I’ve ever worked with—he has less of an ego problem than any of them… Everything was controlled, professional, organized. We recorded more music per hour than any other orchestra ever has.” In one day, March 11, 1962, Ormandy and the Philadelphia recorded Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1; the Semyon Bogatirev arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 7 (for which Ormandy had given the Western hemisphere premiere performance); and Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.
Curiously, the orchestra’s performing venue at the Academy of Music (Philadelphia) was seldom employed for recording, because record producers believed that its dry acoustics were less than ideal. Moreover, Ormandy felt that the remodeling of the Academy of Music in the mid-1950s had ruined its acoustics. The Philadelphia Orchestra instead recorded in the ballroom of Philadelphia’s Broadwood Hotel/Philadelphia Hotel, the Philadelphia Athletic Club at Broad and Race Streets, and in Town Hall/Scottish Rite Cathedral on North Broad Street near the Franklin Parkway. The latter venue featured a 1692 seat auditorium with bright resonant acoustics that made for impressive-sounding “high fidelity” recordings. A fourth venue was the Old Met (Metropolitan Opera House) used for later RCA recording sessions.
Recordings were produced for the following record labels: RCA Victor Red Seal (1936 to 1942), Columbia Masterworks Records (1944 to 1968), RCA Victor Red Seal (1968 to 1980) and EMI/Angel Records (1977-on). Three very late albums were also recorded for Telarc (1980) and Delos (1981) His first digital recording was an April 16, 1979 performance of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra for RCA.
He recorded for RCA in Minneapolis (in 1934 and 1935), too, and continued with the label until 1942, when an American Federation of Musicians ban on recordings caused the Philadelphia Orchestra to switch to Columbia, which had reached an agreement with the union in 1944, before RCA did so. Among his first recordings for Columbia was a spirited performance of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances. Ormandy conducted his first stereophonic recordings in 1957; these were not the orchestra’s first stereo recordings because Leopold Stokowski had conducted experimental sessions in the early 1930s and multi-track recordings for the soundtrack of Walt Disney’s 1940 feature film Fantasia. In 1968, Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to RCA; among their first projects was a new performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth symphony, the Pathetique.
Ormandy was also famous for being an unfailingly sensitive concerto collaborator. His recorded legacy includes numerous first-rate collaborations with Artur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin, David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose, Itzhak Perlman, Emil Gilels, Van Cliburn, Emanuel Feuermann, Robert Casadesus, Yo-Yo Ma and others.
Awards and honors
The Presidential Medal of Freedom by Richard M. Nixon in 1970;
The Ditson Conductor’s Award for championing American music in 1977;
Appointed by Queen Elizabeth II an honorary Knight of the British Empire in 1976;
Awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1982.
Edited by Judit_Watson on 10 Feb 2008, 21:32
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