Those who want to learn more about symphony orchestras often ask about what makes them unique, special or different. The Philadelphia Orchestra is a great case study on the topic.
Sound: Quite simply, “The Philadelphia Sound” has been studied, discussed and lauded internationally for decades. Some call its sound voluptuous, others luxuriant. I call it warm, velvety and gorgeous. Imagine flowing molten chocolate translated into music and that’s what I imagine when listening to this magnificent ensemble. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin wrote, “It is the most beautiful sound in the world, because it is the sound of the hearts and souls of a fantastic group of women and men, passionately committed to share the most wonderful art form to the widest audience possible.”
More technically, it may have developed out of need. It is believed that the rather dry acoustics of the Academy of Music (original home of The Philadelphia Orchestra) required that musicians of the string section over-compensate to create more tonal presence in the hall. The April 2013 online edition of Minor Music quotes Matthew Haydt’s biography of the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Eugene Ormandy to explain “The Philadelphia Sound”:
“As the Philadelphia Orchestra’s long time conductor, Ormandy was able to develop what is known as ‘The Philadelphia Sound.’ This concept applies to the orchestra’s string section, which Ormandy coached meticulously. In the Hungarian tradition of violin playing, Ormandy insisted that his string players use a lot of bow pressure (as opposed to a quick bow with less pressure as in the Russian school), and a broad vibrato. Also, Ormandy switched from the method of ‘free bowing,’ which Toscanini had in place, in which the strings are bowed in different directions, to the more modern practice of ‘uniform bowing,’ in which all instruments in a section bow in the same direction. The unique sound of The Philadelphia Orchestra during his tenure there can also be attributed to the fact that after being there for several years, eventually the entire roster of the orchestra had changed and everyone in it had been hand-picked by Ormandy himself. So, the kinds of players that he wanted were there and this, too, led to the formation of ‘The Philadelphia Sound.’”
A history of firsts: Celebrated and admired for an unrivaled legacy of “firsts” in music making, The Philadelphia Orchestra began presenting educational programs for local audiences in 1921 when Leopold Stokowski initiated concerts exclusively for children, a novel concept at that time.
The Orchestra was also the first American orchestra to perform in the People’s Republic of China in 1973.
The Orchestra premiered (either world or U.S.) such important works as Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The Orchestra was the first to create an online store for purchasing music and make its live recordings available on popular digital music services such as iTunes and Amazon, among others. The Orchestra has also pioneered simulcasts of its concerts into theaters, schools and performing arts centers.
3. The Philadelphia Orchestra brings the world’s greatest artists and repertory to Vail every summer: I am really excited about this summer roster: American violinist Joshua Bell playing Bruch, Disney’s “Fantasia” and Bravo! Vail’s first screening of a movie with live symphony orchestra and Artistic Director Anne-Marie McDermott performing Mozart with famed conductor Donald Runnicles. Works by Brahms, Rachmaninoff and the debut of the fantastic French pianist Helene Grimaud promise a residency full of fresh surprises.
And, don’t forget to check out members of the Orchestra who perform several free community engagement, chamber music performances and at the annual Bravo! Vail Family Concert (Peter and the Wolf, Thursday at 11:30 a.m.)
Jim Palermo is Bravo! Vail’s president and executive director. For more information, visit www.bravovail.org or call 970-827-5700.