"Zealous," is 38-year-old son Mark's description of Irving. "He has a passion, almost a religion for music that largely comes through the violin," Mark says.
"Dad's as zealous about the Lansdowne Symphony as he is about my brother's career." Irving, who retired from the orchestra in 1988, is now the music director of the Lansdowne Symphony, which yesterday was scheduled to give its first concert at the Media Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Martha Ludwig is the calmer, quiet presence. "She diluted the kind of lifestyle Dad might have preferred for us," says Michael, whose features exude diplomacy and his mother's French and Cherokee heritage. Without Mom, ventures Mark, the droll one, "we'd be the Menendez brothers. . . ."
The Philadelphia Orchestra houses many families, including the brothers de Pasquale, the father-son Smiths and Gigliottis, the Lanza cousins.
But in recent weeks the Ludwigs have had the spotlight. When in January, acting concertmaster William de Pasquale suffered a finger injury, Michael led his colleagues from the crucial first chair in performances at the Academy of Music and in Carnegie Hall. Shortly after, Michael played three major violin solos with different community orchestras.
"It's wonderful that he's playing so many concertos, " says orchestra violinist Larry Grika, who notes this is an excellent way for the associate concertmaster to stay in shape. "Michael is tremendously gifted; both the Ludwig sons are fine, fine fellows in every way."
Last month, brother Mark was also on the Academy of Music stage, to give talks about the Viktor Ulmann symphony on a Philadelphia Orchestra program. Mark, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 13 years, is on a sabbatical - to devote more time to the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation that he founded and has run since 1989.
The foundation performs, records, and publishes music of composers who perished during the Holocaust; it also gives classes in other arts created at Terezin, outside Prague.
Largely because of Mark's efforts, Ulmann, Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff are being performed by major symphonies, including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, whose music director, Simon Rattle, is an active member of the Terezin board.
Next week, the Boston Symphony-based Hawthorne String Quartet, which Mark co-founded, will give the North American premiere of Schulhoff's Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra with the BSO. On May 1, the Hawthorne plays music
from Terezin at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Last night, Papa Irving was scheduled to have his turn in the spotlight. Since 1990, Irving has been the music director of the Lansdowne Symphony, which usually performs at Penn Wood High School but is eager to expand its reach. As he has for nearly four years, Michael Ludwig will sit in the concertmaster's chair - one of half a dozen Philadelphia Orchestra musicians with whom Irving salts and peppers the volunteer and largely amateur symphony.
"They boost our confidence, but one of the amazing things is how they merge right in," violist Lloyd Frank, one of the Lansdowne's professional musicians, says of the Philadelphia musicians. It's not uncommon for the better players in amateur groups to project as if they were, inappropriately, taking a solo. "But Irving doesn't want anybody to stick out: He won't let Michael do it," Frank says. There are exceptions, of course, in such violin- rich works as Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, which Michael planned to play yesterday. Lansdowne chairman Jack Covert says attendance for the 49-year-old group has improved dramatically since Irving took over. The series of four to five concerts a year now has more than 300 subscribers, tripled during Ludwig's stint. Musical quality has improved. According to Frank, the symphony long has had strong winds and brass, but now the string sections are ''tighter" and well-tuned.
"Irving's self-deprecating about his stick technique: 'I don't know anything about conducting but I know the violin,' he says - but actually his stick technique is quite good." Interpretations? They're lyrical and lush, romantic on the order of Eugene Ormandy (a.k.a. The Old Man), under whom Irving spent many frustrating "but interesting" years in the second-violin section, moving up, then back because, he freely admits, he talked back to The Old Man.
Some Lansdowners likewise felt feisty when Irving brought his Philly support team to the community group, Frank remembers. But it was the conductor's demand for precision and accuracy that really irked: "He doesn't expect Heifetzes, but he expects you to practice. . . . People were clamoring for his head when he first came." Ultimately, Frank estimates, about a dozen players left.
"He's not doing as much yelling and screaming, anymore. Ask him for the early videotapes," Frank says, referring to the tapes of rehearsals Martha Ludwig routinely makes for Irving to study. "Irving's not autocratic. Basically he wants to be liked," Frank says of the emotionally outsize conductor, who often remarks that "we don't play as well as the Philly Orchestra but we feel together."
"It's an incredibly talented family," says Elmar Oliveira, the violin virtuoso, who years ago left a sick bed to hear the prodigies Mark and Michael play Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in New York.
"Irving doesn't speak that much about himself but he's a wonderful teacher and he was, in fact, a terrific fiddler. . . . We studied with the same teacher, Raphael Bronstein. Bronstein told me wonderful stories about Irving as a kid, playing the Tchaikovsky concerto. . . . "
Bronstein came from New York once a week to the Settlement Music School, where Irving studied through elementary and high school. Says Irving, who was raised in West Philadelphia: "My mother was from Minsk, my father, Kiev. He was a trolley conductor. He collected the fares on the PTC (now SEPTA). He was 50 years older than me; I'm not sure he even knew he had a son. He had two wives, five kids with the first (marriage), which lasted 24 years; then, with my mother, me and my younger sister."
Irving, who does not hide his emotions, recalls being "moved to tears," usually about his sons' accomplishments, and certainly in 1949, when he joined the orchestra. "Since I was 10, I'd been taking the trolley to hear them." He sat with the other Settlement students in the orchestra pit: "Everybody wanted to be a soloist, but I wanted to play in the Philadelphia Orchestra: I thought they were the Greek gods." Irving named his first-born Mark after his father, with two middle names for the fiddler-gods. Mark explains: "My middle names are Raphael for Bronstein, and David for Oistrakh: What do you think he wanted me to be?"
Mark got a violin at age 5 1/2; after a few years, Irving decided "let's give the viola a try. . . . " In high school, Mark studied with the orchestra violist Leonard Mogill, and at the Curtis Institute under Philadelphia Orchestra principal Joseph de Pasquale.
During high school and his Curtis years, Mark had other arts on his mind. He studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts and art history under Violette de Mazia at the Barnes; he devoured Shakespeare scholar Joan Landis' literature courses at the music school. "My brother's a true Renaissance man," Michael says proudly. The two talk "every day - even when we're on tour."
Though Irving couldn't fathom some of Mark's nonmusical interests, his coaching was the "psychological boost" that helped him into the BSO at 25, Mark says.
A year earlier, Mark was in his first year as associate violist in the Kansas City Symphony and planning to stay. But during a Christmas party the Ludwigs attended at Curtis, Irving slipped over to the Academy of Music, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra was playing, to greet friends. "I found out there were viola openings and said, 'Mark you're going to audition . . . after that we worked pretty intensely. I remember one Friday afternoon concert with the orchestra - after the audience had left, I said, 'Mark, get on the stage and play. . . .' "
The soloist that day had been Elmar Oliveira, who as he was leaving stopped to listen to Mark. Oliveira knew Irving from Bronstein's violin studio, but he hadn't yet met either of the sons. He was so impressed he asked Irving who was playing.
"I said, 'Elmar, you couldn't be nicer: That was my son.' "
Michael wasn't named for a fiddler, but he was the prodigy in the conventional sense of the word - playing for virtuosos from Itzhak Perlman to Henryk Szeryng early on; winning competitions, including the General Motors/ Seventeen Magazine award that gave him a solo with the Chicago Symphony in his teens; winning three of the Philadelphia's student concert auditions.
Michael also won his Philadelphia seat at 25; like his father three decades earlier, Michael got the last seat in the second violins.
Soon thereafter, Michael won the audition for the associate concertmaster seat. "I spent my whole career in the second violins so you can imagine the satisfaction of seeing Michael up front," Irving says.
"He did everything I tried for and didn't get - even playing the Tchaikovsky in the student concerts! He's a great fiddler. I'm not saying it
because I'm his father; I'm his hardest critic. . . . The technique is awesome. . . ."
Michael won an audition at Curtis when he was only 12, though he didn't stay long; Irving, frustrated when a promised private teacher for Michael didn't come through, pulled him out and taught him himself. Later, Michael studied with Josef Gingold at Indiana University. Since he was 15, Michael's other mentor has been Joseph Silverstein, the former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and music director of the Utah Symphony, whom Michael reveres for "symbolizing everything a concertmaster should be."
Irving's hands-on presence with his youngest son's career irked some early on, but Silverstein points out: "The parents of a prodigy are put in a position where they are going to have to irritate others. . . . Irving's a very dear man, and the way those young men have turned out speaks volumes about how well Papa and Mama did their jobs."