Leopold Stokowski, the father of the Philadelphia Sound In his glamorous career, the orchestra's first great director forged the distinctively lush music and spread it to the world.

Posted: January 26, 2007

No matter how architecturally impressive a building may be, it's only walls and ceiling until animated by people who command - if not surpass - its potential. Though the sounds of many great artists massaged the Academy of Music's plaster in its first 50 years, the Old World structure waited until 1912 to take its place among the centers of New World culture with the arrival of its first resident titan, conductor Leopold Stokowski.

The first great music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose stormy reign lasted until 1941, Stokowski wasn't just the most glamorous of Philadelphia musicians, he was possibly the most artistically distinguished. He created the famously lush Philadelphia Sound and made it available to the world: The Academy of Music was the epicenter for both recordings and radio broadcasts with unprecedented sound quality.

Beyond that, Stokowski did what no other classical conductor had done: He and his orchestra went Hollywood, landing in Walt Disney's animated classic, Fantasia. This, however, was a case of flying too close to the sun. The film initially flopped, and his famous on-screen handshake with Mickey Mouse turned out to be a Faustian one. From then on, his artistry was suspect: Was he a figure of substance or of illusion?

Nearly 30 years after his death, one can say with a certain enjoyment that Stokowski was both - possibly in greater proportions than was apparent when he died in 1977 at 95. Given his Old World interventionist approach toward making music and his vision for disseminating it with the New World's technology, he was, in the words of an uncredited pundit, a 19th-century musician with a 21st-century mind.

Between those two centuries, the glory that was Stokowski was a bewildering mixture of self-invention, ruthless ambition, rampant vanity, and music-making that bordered on mystical. When he arrived in America as organist at New York's St. Bartholomew's Church, he had a new birth date (1887, not 1882) and new national origins (he claimed to be from Krakow, but the facts say London). So completely did he emotionally divorce his family of origin that he told one of his wives, while en route to an English rest home, that he was visiting his childhood nanny, though the woman was actually his mother.

The new self evolved over several years. With the help of the first of his three wives, pianist Olga Samaroff, he landed the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1909 with almost no conducting experience. From his first rehearsal in Philadelphia in 1912, the orchestra dramatically improved, for reasons even the players couldn't fully explain.

Stokowski was mesmerizing, and his sense of self-presentation made him all the more so. He had a special aluminum podium trimmed in blue to accentuate his hair and eyes. He gave up using a baton while in Philadelphia, sculpting the air with bare hands. By the time he conducted Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961, he wore white kid gloves so his hands' radiance could be seen by all.

Besides having movie-star looks and credits, he romanced Greta Garbo, with whom he toured Europe in the glare of rock-star publicity in 1938. It was serious: Before the affair's demise a year later, he is said to have begun building a house for her in Gladwyne, with a platform for pianos and a balcony for her to peer down on him.

His other love affairs were legendary. He had a habit of marrying heiresses: Evangeline Brewster Johnson and, finally, Gloria Vanderbilt, when she was 21 and he was 63. It is said one of his favorite forms of intimacy was to have a beautiful woman wash his resplendent hair.

The perception of Stokowski's music-making suffered from the perception of his personality. No matter that he rivaled and even eclipsed his contemporary and sometimes-enemy Arturo Toscanini in performances of Brahms and Beethoven that, to judge from recordings, seem increasingly magnetic and imaginative as time goes on. He was backhandedly complimented - or in some circles dismissed - as the world's greatest conductor of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov's middle-weight orchestral showpiece.

What can perhaps only be seen three decades after his death is the point at which illusion and substance meld. In unlocking the new music that he championed (amid many protests from the Philadelphia Orchestra board), Stokowski seemed to have insights he didn't know he had. He admitted in later years to not understanding, say, Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 6, but he performed it anyway - and well, to judge from radio recordings, by flying blind, on instinct.

There was illusion, all right; some say it was downright paranormal. Though elements of the famously lush Stokowski sound included unorthodox arrangement of instruments and unsynchronized bowing in the strings, William Ander Smith, in his 1990 book, The Mystery of Leopold Stokowski, argues that the conductor was what New Age circles now would call a shaman or metaphysician, one able to accomplish feats of energy transference that allowed his collaborators a freedom and inspiration they rarely felt elsewhere. Other musical instances would be Wilhelm Furtw┬Łngler and Sergiu Celibadache.

It was a gift that, to the end of his life, Stokowski vaguely termed "his secret," according to Smith. Who knows how much he understood what he had - but he seemed to know enough to support it with attention to his physical well-being. (A friend of mine attended a dinner party at the Stokowski residence in New York, and reported that the conductor distributed - as if giving out jewels - ornate dishes of prunes.)

Stokowski maintained this gift in his post-Philadelphia years with the Houston Symphony Orchestra (1955-60), the formation of the American Symphony Orchestra in 1962 at age 80 (and with some of his own money), and his final period in London, where he retired from concerts but had a recording contract that would have taken him through his 100th birthday.

His Philadelphia Orchestra relationship, however, was the sort that few great conductors are lucky enough to have. The 20th Century stood before him like a blank page that he filled with then-unimaginable artistic events, starting with a 1916 U.S. premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 8, in performances that lived up to the subtitle "Symphony of a Thousand," with more than 1,000 performers.

One event followed another, including the U.S. premiere of Berg's opera Wozzeck in 1931, thanks partly to a synergistic relationship with the Curtis Institute of Music, both in its resources of student singers and instrumentalists and in the financial resources of Mary Louise Curtis Bok.

Though Stokowski's sense of artistic confrontation played well when times were good (if an audience registered resistance to a modern-music piece, he simply encored it immediately), he all but engineered his Philadelphia downfall when times turned bad. As the Great Depression set in, money just wasn't there, even for Brahms symphonies with full orchestra. His increasing interest in Hollywood, beginning with 1937's One Hundred Men and a Girl, kept him away for long periods until the late 1930s, when Eugene Ormandy assumed the upper hand in their co-directorship.

The break wasn't happy, and he did not return as a guest conductor until the early 1960s; the intermittent relationship lasted until 1969. Radio tapes from those visits that included Stokowski touchstones such as Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder show plenty of interpretive evolution, but with a degree and quality of electricity remarkably similar to the great recordings of the late 1920s.

Stokowski could whip an orchestra of zombies into a musical frenzy. But what he accomplished with apparent regularity in Philadelphia's Academy of Music was artistic hysteria - an energy level pitched even higher than usual, but one that had a steely element of control and a profound sense of purpose.

Even Stokowski's most sympathetic biographers refer to the "razzle-dazzle" of his Philadelphia work. But even they have it wrong. This is recreative art at a level achieved by only a handful of others, a level in which music becomes something mystical.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/davidpatrickstearns

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