The Philadelphia Sound Meets The Rite of Spring

by Sedgwick Clark


At a press luncheon for the Vienna Philharmonic in 1986, I was seated next to cellist Werner Resel, the chairman of the orchestra. We were talking about the unique sound of the VPO, and he remarked with a laugh that a critic had written that under Leonard Bernstein the Vienna sounded like the New York Philharmonic. “Well, that’s true,” I replied. “A great conductor brings his own sound to any orchestra he leads.” End of conversation.

Professor Resel may not have agreed with my opinion, but I’ve heard too many orchestras change their spots with different conductors to doubt it. Last week I wrote that the Philadelphia Orchestra was the only major orchestra that has retained its traditional sonority, and I wondered how or if the ensemble’s new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, would seek to change it. So far in the orchestra’s New York concerts this season he commandeered an impressive Verdi Requiem, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, about which I continue to hear breathless bouquets (I was on vacation), and a roof-raising rendition of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, this year’s work du jour due to its world-wide 100th-anniversary celebration. It used to be that the Philadelphians were thought too upholstered for The Rite’s savage attacks. (Stravinsky himself referred to the orchestra’s “chinchilla echo.”) But not on this night, with the battery lamming away ferociously and Stravinsky’s orchestral palette glimmering dynamically as rarely before. Deutsche Grammophon recorded it and a handful of Stokowski arrangements this week as the first release in the Philadelphians’ new contract. The orchestra played Stoki’s 1933 arrangement of Stravinsky’s lovely, early Pastorale as an encore—“a digestif,” Yannick called it. And strongly to be encouraged.

The sumptuous “Philadelphia Sound” was the response of Leopold Stokowski (1912-1936) and Eugene Ormandy (1937-1980)—in a combined tenure of  68 years—to stretch the delay time of the acoustically dry Academy of Music. Ormandy’s successor, Riccardo Muti (1980-1992), also desired a more reverberant acoustic, but he believed that the orchestra’s performances should not have its own sound but rather the composer’s sound. Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Philadelphia’s sixth music director (1993-2003), who died last Friday, age 89, sided with Ormandy, and the Philadelphia Sound made a welcome reappearance. That should please those who agree, for Sawallisch appointed 40 new orchestra members while music director – the most since Stokowski.

Prior to the concert the new m.d. and the orchestra had a “sound check” onstage, at which their mutual regard—smiles, laughter, and the traditional shuffling of feet when he complimented the playing—was palpably clear. Afterwards, he and the orchestra’s president and chief executive officer, Allison Vulgamore, met with members of the press, at which he spoke enthusiastically about the Philadelphia Sound and “the players’ willingness to be passionate with their music-making.” Vulgamore reported that attendance had jumped from 60 to 80 percent.

Yannick is short and compact, muscular and young (he turns 38 next week), freewheeling on the podium and enamored of fast tempos. It’s been a long time since such a combination has described a Philadelphia music director. So far, he appears to be just what the doctor ordered.

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