Philadelphia Orchestra was once a prime player here

October 30, 1994|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Staff Writer

When the Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Meyerhoff Hall Tuesday after an absence of more than a decade, the occasion will mark the renewal of a long and passionate affair between Baltimore music lovers and one of the world's great orchestral ensembles.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has played a unique role in the musical life of this city, nurturing, educating and expanding the artistic taste of its audiences. The orchestra raised performance standards in a city whose own local symphony for many years subsisted on a cultural level not much above that of a municipal band.

"For many music lovers, the Philadelphia was Baltimore's orchestra," said Dick Turner, a local music lover and record collector who manages a stereo store on Cold Spring Lane. "People handed down season tickets for the orchestra's concerts from one generation to another."

During the first half of this century, the Philadelphia Orchestra made regular visits to Baltimore, whose site on a major rail hub made it a natural stop for large touring productions -- including the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which began visiting the city soon after they were formed around the turn of the century.

Yet local music lovers always reserved a place in their hearts for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Its concerts were considered the musical highlight of the season, and tickets were in such demand that virtually every appearance was sold out. In 1959, The Sun reported that readers were scanning the paper's death notices for recently deceased subscribers whose season tickets might come on the market.

Though Baltimore had a vibrant tradition of choral music-making dating back to the mid-19th century, orchestral music long languished due to lack of the private philanthropy that sustained first-class ensembles in cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

In fact, few cities outside the major East Coast centers could muster the financial and artistic resources needed for permanent orchestras devoted exclusively to instrumental music, as opposed to opera and musical theater.

The prototype of the modern symphony orchestra first appeared in New England in 1881, when a $1 million bequest by a wealthy Boston financier, Henry L. Higginson, led to the organization of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Around the same time, the old New York Philharmonic Society, which dated back to 1842, was reorganized along similar lines by a group of New York philanthropists. And the first formal concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra were held in that city soon after its founding in 1900.

Patterned on the Boston and New York model, the young Philadelphia Orchestra's players and conductor were professional musicians recruited from all over the country and Europe, and they were engaged at a contractual season salary. The Philadelphia's charter also included a charge to perform only music of the highest quality and to make the conductor solely responsible for its artistic direction.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's first two conductors, Fritz Scheel and Karl Pohlig, were both foreign-trained musicians who molded their players into a highly disciplined ensemble.

But though Scheel and Pohlig put the orchestra on a secure musical footing, it was not until the arrival of the 30-year-old Leopold Stokowski in 1912 that the orchestra was able to fully enlist Philadelphia's wealthy elite in support of its activities.

Stokowski took the city by storm during his first season. He was the prototype of the modern virtuoso conductor whose daring technical and administrative innovations quickly succeeded in riveting public attention on the orchestra's work.

Stokowski kept the orchestra's management in perpetual suspense over his next demand, and his audience in a dither of curiosity for his next surprise. For example, he abandoned the score and baton to conduct entire concerts from memory with his arms and hands. He changed the seating arrangement of the orchestra to highlight the cellos or emphasize the piquancy of brass and woodwind sections.

He also introduced audiences to the works of such modern masters as Schonberg, Stravinsky and Prokofiev -- and scolded them from the podium when they expressed incomprehension or indifference.

In 1916, Stokowski presented Mahler's Symphony No. 8, the "Symphony of a Thousand," with a gigantic orchestra and chorus in a concert series that cost $15,000 to put on -- an unheard-of sum at the time. Yet the nine performances that year were sold out, and scalpers drove prices to astronomical levels -- an unprecedented occurrence for a symphony concert.

Baltimore audiences were dazzled by the flamboyant Stokowski when he made his debut with orchestra here in 1913. The city had never seen nor heard music-making to match it.

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