The Changing Sounds of Orchestras

Recently, one of the premier American orchestras, the New York Philharmonic, underwent another personnel change that may affect, even if subtly, the sound of that esteemed ensemble.  Philip Smith, the principal trumpeter, retired last week after 36 years with the orchestra.  According to a recent NPR story, he leaves with many accolades from colleagues and others praising his talents and contributions to the NY Phil’s sound.

Last month, Glenn Dictorow retired after being the Philharmonic’s principal violinist for 36 years.  He certainly had a strong influence on the sound of the orchestra, as this New York Times article makes clear.  And, as you may remember, it was back in 2009 that Alan Gilbert became the New York Philharmonic’s most recent music director, replacing Lorin Maazel.  A change of that magnitude, of course, affects the orchestra even more significantly, and in many ways.

This got me to reflect on some of my reactions to a concert I attended many years ago right here in Columbus.  The Philadelphia Orchestra was on tour and performed at Mershon Auditorium.  This was in the late 80′s, and Ricardo Muti was the music director and conductor.  Not long after they launched into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I felt something was really different from what I expected to hear.

Instead of the plush, rich and warm sound of the Philadelphia strings I was used to hearing from those great old recordings with Eugene Ormandy, I heard something more austere and leonine.  It was tight, crisp and precise, but I felt at the time, maybe lacking something in warmth.  I did’t realize then, just how much a conductor can alter the sound of a well-established professional orchestra.

Ricardo Muti became the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1980 after the death of Ormandy, who had led that ensemble since 1936.  Ormandy had created the famous “Philadelphia sound”  during his many years with the ensemble.  The emphasis on the opulent string tone was apparently in response to the dry acoustics of their concert hall, but one of the results was creating a unique and voluptuous sound for the orchestra.  Muti made a conscious break with past tradition, shaping the sound of the orchestra to be more in line with his interpretive and expressive ideas.

The sound of a symphony orchestra consists of a wonderful alchemy of many elements, ultimately controlled by the conductor.  Over time, individual players, who are usually chosen by the conductor, come and go.  The conductors themselves come and go, making an orchestra a subtly shifting kaleidoscope of sound.  For us concert goers and  recorded music listeners, it means a rich and varied treasure of music, and it makes each individual orchestra unique in some way.

There is also, however, the issue of changing tastes and ideas about music interpretation based on historical scholarship.  Then too, in the case of recordings, there are a variety of technical and aesthetic considerations that greatly affect the sound of a familiar symphony or concerto, but these are subjects that require whole separate articles to themselves at some future date.

In the meantime, enjoy the music.