The conductor with the thickest skin

The conductor with the thickest skin


norman lebrecht

January 06, 2021

From the anti-maestro memoirs of the marvellous John Georgiadis, the LSO leader who sadly died yesterday.

After many hours of rehearsals and recordings through which he was constantly displaying his dissatisfaction with the LSO’s inaibility to do what he wanted, at last something happened that pleased him. With a satisfied roar he exclaimed, ‘Yes, yes, yes! Now, at last, you’re beginning to sound like my Philadelphia!’

A it would be the ultimate height of bad manners for a conductor to make any comparisons with another orchestra, for a moment the LSO members sat in quiet shock. Then, after that silent moment of stunned disbelief, there arose an enormous ground swell of noise as moans of utter derision greeted this incredible ‘clanger’. Boos and hisses accompanied the groand in a spontaneous rejection of these crude sentiments. But (Ormandy) just looked astnished and uttered, ‘what? what?’ a few times, simply not comprehending that he had crossed the line of decency.

This was the only time that I saw him taken aback, such was the thickness of his skin…


  • Paul Dawson says:

    Thanks for posting this. An extraordinary demonstration of insensitivity, which made me go searching for his autobiography. Not cheap at $50, but well reviewed on Amazon. I am looking forward to working through it.

  • Hayne says:

    …or the thickness of his scull.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Yes, Ormandy did cross the line there, and there’s really no excuse for that kind of comment (although there were a number of conductors of his era who routinely behaved much worse than he).
    But his Philadelphia was a superb orchestra from top to bottom, front to back.
    I heard Ormandy/Philly three times in concert, and the LSO once, under Abbado, around the same period.
    Philly was SO much better. Ensemble, tonal quality, solo players – superior in every respect.
    (The leader in Philly the times I heard the orchestra was Norman Carol; I do not recall who the LSO’s leader was.)

    • John F Kelly says:

      Probably LSO leader was Michael Davis, a wonderful player and leader (ex-Halle). The LSO had great solo players (as did Philly) but there was no comparison in terms of string playing and overall sound. I heard Ormandy and Muti live with the Phillies a lot in the 1980s and I concur that the orchestra was absolutely outstanding, in fact, I thought that under Muti they were easily the best orchestra in the US at the time. It’s not so much that the LSO weren’t that great, they were very good, but the Phillies were out of this world.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Thanks, John, for the info on Michael Davis.
        – cheers, Greg

      • BruceB says:

        Lots of people would agree that the Philadelphia Orchestra at that time was better than the LSO at that time. The point is that, as a guest of the LSO, it’s in incredibly poor taste to say so right to their faces.

        • Sue Sonata Form says:

          Not to mention about what it says about a conductor who accepts a gig with a ‘second rate’ orchestra!!!

        • Kenny says:

          He didn’t have “nowthasswhatimtalkinabout” at his disposal.

        • Maria says:

          But the LSO did far more concerts of different programmes and on far less rehearsal time, as per all British orchestras do. They always achieve so much on so little. You can’t compare apples with pears.

      • William Evans says:

        Is Mr Davis still around? (I remember seeing him at the Proms in the late 1970s or 1980s.)

    • Robin Smith says:

      Where did you hear the LSO/Abbado on your one occasion ? The acoustic at the Barbican in it’s early days was very challenging. Better now though still quite difficult.

      • JAH Lovatt says:

        “it’s” can only ever mean “it is”, so you’re too thick to comment, as are all the others that i have successively read just now!

        • John F Kelly says:

          Early in 2021 but my first nominee for SD “Pedant of the Year” award……………

        • Bill says:

          No, it can also be a contraction of “it has” so your statement is incorrect. “It’s just stopped raining” is an example of that usage.

        • Jan Kaznowski says:

          Haha the grammar policeman just wrote “I have” in lower case.

        • Allen says:

          Two points – it’s can also mean “it has” (as in “It’s been a good performance”), and “i” should be “I”.

          Better to get these things right before accusing others of being thick.

          • Bob Hegel says:

            Who the h*ll says ‘it’s been a good performance’? Normal people say ‘it was a good performance’.

          • George says:

            It’s been a good year for pedantry.

          • Allen says:

            Google “present perfect tense”. It can describe, amongst other things, an event which started in the past and continued up to the present.

            Believe it or not, some “normal” people consider it quite useful.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Hi Robin,
        I heard LSO/Abbado on tour in San Francisco at Davies Hall. (Ormandy/Philly performed there too, as well as at the War Memorial Opera House.)
        From an audience members’ point of view, I have never had a problem with Davies’ acoustics, as others have stated. Even before the stage remodel and the new overhead “clouds”, the acoustics were, IMO, good – depending on your seat. The main problem was that the musicians couldn’t hear each other well enough on stage. I performed there, pre-remodel, and I can testify this to be the case.
        It’s still not quite the equal of what I think is the best large hall in The Bay Area, though: Flint Center at De Anza College in Cupertino. I have performed there, too, and you can hear EVERYTHING onstage, and the hall being the traditional shoebox shape, the audience experience is superb as well.

      • John Kelly says:

        I think Greg lives in the US. Abbado came on a tour with the LSO in 1982. I heard them in San Francisco in November 82 and I remember the Berlioz Sym Fantastique. I was sitting behind the orchestra and remember Maurice Murphy looking sick as a dog with his head down much of the time, but when he had to play he was still superb!

      • Maria says:

        We only got the Barbican in 1982. LSO played elsewhere before that and at the Festival Hall and the Proms.

    • Patrick says:

      Mike Davis. Another great British leader.

      • JAH Lovatt says:

        Finally: an error-free comment. Could its brevity have helped?

      • Peter Phillips says:

        Over the years there have been so many: Rodney Friend, Martin Milner, Reginald Stead, Paul Beard, Hugh Bean to mention a few. Hugh Maguire (Bournemouth SO, LSO, BBCSO, ROH) ought to qualify but doesn’t, only because he was Irish.

    • JAH Lovatt says:

      Your grammar is very suspect, mate; although i doubt you are educated well enough to be able to spot your errors.

  • Nijinsky says:

    Please don’t try testing him like he’s in “One Bad Apple Don’t Spoil the Whole Bunch Girl” be the Osmond Brothers..

  • Manfred Neuman says:

    When Sir George Solti conducted the Ring in Bayreuth in the 1980ies, during one of the first rehearsals, he told the brass players of the festival orchestra:
    “You certainly now that I have the best brass section of the world in Chicago”
    One of the trombonist countered: ” And we have the best sausages of the world here in Bavaria”

  • Tony Catterick, Historian for The British Horn Siciety says:

    It is deep regret that The British Horn Society has heard that the great horn player Derek Taylor passed away on January 1st. 2021. Derek was 85. He had a most distinguished career as a Principal Horn in Dublin, Scotland and finally 30 years in the BBC Symphony until 1994. He was Senior Professor of Horn at the Royal Northern College of Music and Senior Professor of Horn at The Royal Academy of Music, London. A man of great warmth, humour and strength of character, alongside his glorious talent at playing the horn. A much missed man and friend to many. Adored by his many successful pupils, fellow horn players and his devoted family.
    RIP Derek. We will always remember you.

  • 18mebrumaire says:

    Thank God those times are past and those old dinosaurs are now a heap of sun bleached bones in the desert.

  • John Kelly says:

    While a semi-amusing anecdote, and may well be true, many of the stories in Mr Georgiadis’ book are not true. For example, he mentions playing with Stokowski at Fairfield Halls to a “half empty hall” – well those concerts were all sell-outs. He also claims that Stokowski threw some kind of tantrum/scena in rehearsal for a concert that he wasn’t even in the orchestra for – John Brown was leader at the time. Of course Stoki probably did throw some kind of scena on more than one occasion with the LSO but this and more than a few other stories, while funny, are based on hearsay rather than Mr. G actually being there. The stories about Antal Dorati stretch disbelief to the max…………..

  • John Kelly says:

    This isn’t so much about thick skin as lack of “emotional intelligence.” One of the Philadelphia players kept a log of “Ormandyisms” which are truly hysterical to read…….enjoy………….

    My vote for thickest skin – Szell, closely followed by Reiner.

    The book “Tales from the Locker Room” by Angell and Jaffe is mandatory reading about Szell. If you like John G’s book, you will LOVE this!

    • JAH Lovatt says:

      I’d put Wyn Morris in that number!

    • David J Hyslop says:

      Agree with your comment. Szell and Reiner made Ormandy look like a boy scout. I worked with Ormandy and attended Szell and Reiner performances .

      • Peter Phillips says:

        Even Szell’s wife is reputed to have said about her husband, “Gemütlich he aint.” And Jack Brymer reckoned him “the most unpleasant conductor” he’d ever worked with. Clearly, there’s competition for that title.

    • Fernandel says:

      Szell and Reiner didn’t had what I consider “thick skin”. They would simply kill off any opposition, which is quite different. Rattle in Berlin had a damn thick skin to resist adversity. It never really worked but he held on.

  • Basso says:

    I was Performing the Beethoven 9th with him in the late 70s at Saratoga. Ormandy was rehearsing the slow movement and when the 3d horn played his big solo, Ormandy looked up and said “That was good, I didn’t expect that” In the concert the horn cracked a note. Ormandy looked at him and smiled!

    • James Scott says:

      The solo in the Beethoven 9th is in the 4th horn part, not 3rd.

      • Dave says:

        Maybe that’s why Ormandy didn’t expect it? 😉

      • Christopher Clift says:

        Agreed James that was what Beethoven wrote in the score, however I have played the piece on many occasions, during some of which that solo has be played by 4th, 3rd and on at least one occasion by the 1st.

        One fourth horn player I knew, was a keen amateur rugby player, who often played rugby on a Saturday afternoon, followed by a (professional) concert in the evening. The only occasions on which he pulled out of a rugby match on account of the concert, was when Beethoven 9 was on the programme. He assured me that his motivation was NOT to seek the limelight, but to save some other horn player from being landed with the solo, in the event that he had suffered some sort of dental or embouchure injury during the afternoon’s match.

        • James Scott says:

          I’ve been playing in professional orchestras in the US and Canada for 45 years – I’ve never seen the solo played by anyone other than the 4th Horn. I’ve heard stories of that happening, but it would be considered a major insult to do so in the last 50 years, unless it was to help out a player who was sick or injured.

          • Stephen Owades says:

            I sang in the chorus of the Boston Symphony for many years, including near-annual performances of Beethoven Ninth. One of the first was led by Leonard Bernstein in 1970, and I remember him remarking in surprise when the then–principal horn James Stagliano *didn’t* play that solo in rehearsal; it was instead the hotshot new fourth horn, David Ohanian (who moved on to the Empire Brass Quintet after a few years). Ohanian was superb.

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      4th horn not 3rd horn

    • William Safford says:

      Was that with the Philadelphia Orchestra, or the School of Orchestral Studies?

  • PaulRandall says:

    Some wonderful quotes from Ormandy …

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Some of those famous Ormandy quotes date from when he was getting old enough that his second language of English was starting to be a challenge, or so I have heard, and members of the orchestra started to keep track of the results and would circulate the list to colleagues in other orchestras. Whether Ormandy ever learned of it I do not know.

    I think it was Roger Dettmer who made the point, either in Fanfare magazine or in a letter to me, I cannot recall, that the Philadelphia players who were so happy to send around that much Xeroxed list of Ormandy-isms might actually have thought they’d continue to make as many recordings and as much recording income as they had under Ormandy once he was gone. If they did think that they were soon disabused of the notion. Ormandy had put quite a bit of money in their pockets and their gratitude was that Xeroxed list.

    I have heard a recording of Stokowski in rehearsal perhaps putting Ormandy’s point more tactfully, saying something along these lines: “I know this is different from what other conductors ask for. When you play for them, give them what they want. Now — give me what I want.”

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      English was Ormandy’s third language. German was his second

      • Jack says:

        I’ve heard Ormandy in interviews and his English was near perfect. Listen to him on the link below. I think what the critics are talking about here was when he would become excited during rehearsals and blurt out the wrong word. Anshel Brusilow’s book talked about this a lot. As EO’s concertmaster for some time, I think he was in a position to know. But enough. Here’s a good example of his “bad English”.

    • JAH Lovatt says:

      That sentence is way too long. There are grammar “ishoos” as well.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thanks, David. Great comment.
      Ya just gotta love Stoki!
      My timpani teacher, Elayne Jones, was Stoki’s timpanist in the American Symphony Orch. She kept emphasizing how businesslike, efficient, and professional he was at rehearsals.
      Then at the concert: magic happened!

      • John Kelly says:

        Bud Herseth said Stoki was the most efficient rehearser he’d experienced. I have many recordings of Stoki rehearsals and concerts with the ASO and some are now on Youtube. Elayne was African American and I think the first person of color to hold that kind of position in a US orchestra………

        • Greg Bottini says:

          Hi John,
          You’re right on all counts, and in your previous comment as well.
          I do live in SF, and that’s exactly where I heard Abbado conduct the Symphonie Fantastique with the LSO. I was in the front row, first tier, in front of the orchestra.
          Elayne was not granted tenure in the SF Symphony after two seasons (Elayne claimed to me that it was racism; I’ve since heard other stories as well from other people close to the situation), so she moved across Grove Street to become timpanist of the SF Opera Orchestra, where she remained for many years, until her retirement.
          BTW, who is Maurice Murphy?

          • John Kelly says:

            Thanks for the info on Elayne!!! Maurice Murphy was principal trumpet of the LSO from 1977 (maybe 1978) until the early “noughties”. A legend in British brass playing, I grew up hearing him as principal in the BBC Northern Symphony and then he moved to London. His glorious sound can be well heard on recordings (try the channel “LSO Live” on YT and look for Pictures with Celi for example – even better find the Tippett Ritual dances with Celi). His first gig with the LSO was recording the soundtrack for Star Wars with John Williams (the guy Norman wasn’t so keen on conducting the VPO in film scores….) – Williams immediately raved about Maurice during the sessions. He’s right, he “led” the LSO in exactly the same way Herseth did the CSO. BTW you guys in SF have a phenomenal trumpet in Jeff Inouye – I remember a Mahler 7 in NY where his utter security in the high stuff in Movement 5 was downright exhilarating! (playing jazz probably helps)

          • Greg Bottini says:

            Yeah, John, Jeff Inouye IS great.
            It’ll be nice to hear the SF Sym. live again.
            And thanks for filling me in about Maurice Murphy.
            I always love to know more about the players in orchestras!

          • Stefan Ufer says:

            Maurice Murphy was the LSO’s principal trumpet for many years – something of a “legend”.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    At the time of writing, JAH Lovatt has posted 8 comments out the total of 30, which is a little over 25%. These 8 comments have, in total, received zero approvals and 20 disapprovals. (S)he is being insufferably snobbish about others’ education/intelligence. I wonder if (s)he is sufficiently educated/intelligent to pay heed to these statistics.

  • Stefan Ufer says:

    Apparently Bernstein once told the NY Phil they never played as well as the Vienna Phil

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      Lenny also compared BBCSO unfavourably to NYPO (which he still referred to as “my orchestra”, even though he’d stopped being music director many years earlier)

  • William Safford says:

    His brother, Martin, was a fine cellist, and a very nice man.

  • Ilio says:

    “recordings”…plural? Ormandy only made 1 recordings with the LSO. I always have problems with these autobios that trash other people.

  • Yossel says:

    This reminds me of a story I heard from a long-retired Boston Symphony flutist: Solti was rehearsing the orchestra in his [so far as I know] one-and-only appearance with them, back in 1979. The program consisted of the Bartok ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ and the Brahms ‘Symphony No. 1’. Early into the first rehearsal, the first chair string players heard him muttering to himself in astonishment, “Good orchestra here in Boston….VERY good orchestra!”. In response, one of the players turned to his stand mate and said, in mock astonishment, while imitating the maestro’s jerky beat, “Solti….VERY good conductor”. This routine was taken up by a number of other musicians. Reportedly, Solti was not amused. Can anyone out there corroborate this anecdote?

    • Stefan Ufer says:

      They were probably offended that Solti clearly didn’t know Boston had such a “very good” orchestra. A bit like the time when Bernstein told John Drummond that “nobody knew about” the BBC Proms.

  • Player says:

    Wasn’t the LSO known for being mean to most conductors? When was this, the Georgiadis period, before or after? They even made Böhm cry. Though I think that may have been his response to their (rather fine) playing of Tod und Verklärung…

    • Luca says:

      They treated Giulini and Jochum very badly indeed, like a bunch of loutish schoolboys (some of them). I was at one rehearsal and Georgiadis did not play his part as a go-between to calm the orchestra down.

      • Peter Phillips says:

        I was present at the recording session of Mahler 2 last movement with Gilbert Kaplan in Cardiff. The LSO were magnificent and conductor/orchestra relations seemed to be very cordial. In fact, Michael Davis made a presentation to Kaplan at the end of the session. It would have been easy for the orchestra to take advantage of Kaplan as an amateur but instead they cooperated, apparently wholeheartedly. Unlike, it is alleged, the Vienna Phil when Kaplan made a second recording. Norman could bear me out because he was at the Cardiff session making a tv programme.

      • Annnon says:

        The LSO has never tolerated fools, conductors who cannot do their silent job.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Ormandy was a terribly over-rated conductor, IMO.

  • MacroV says:

    If Ormandy was trying to get the LSO to sound (stylistically) like Philly, I don’t see the problem. He’s the conductor and wants to bring “The Philadelphia Sound (TM)” to the LSO. That’s one reason they booked him. A different matter if he was implying they were an inferior band (though they probably were).

    • John Kelly says:

      He would have to give them Italian instruments (like many in the Philly Orch) and, more importantly,, his parts with his bowings…..sometimes including his “filling in of texture” added string parts…………e.g. Rach 2

  • Edgar Self says:

    Interesting storis, comments, and syntax. It’s striking how many of these conductors are Hungarian: Dorati, Solti, Reiner, Szell, and Ormandy. It’s good to see Martin Ormandy’s name, Jeno’s well-liked freelance cellist brother who worked in New York. Their family name was changed from Blau, and Solti’s from Stern. Eugene Ormandy’s languages are mentioned, but not his earlier days in Minneapolis.

    Here’s another story, perhaps apocryphal. On the day Ormandy died, two Philadelphia players met in th street. One had heard the news; the other had not. “Ormandy is dead,” the first said. The second looked at his shoes and shook his head. “That’s not enough.”

    I love Solti’s answer to a question about his favorite place in Vienna: “The road to the airport.”

  • Novagerio says:

    What’s the fuzz about? He had indeed a superior orchestra – then

  • Edgar Self says:

    Ormandy didn’t invent the Philadelphia sound but inherited it and its principal players from his predecessor, Leopold Stokowski: Bernard Portnoy, clarinet; Sol Schoenbach, bassoon; Mason Jones, horn; Marcel Tabuteau, oboe; and concertmaster Alexander Hilsberg, later an associate conductor.

    I knew one of Ormandy’s later concertmasters, Jacob Krachmalnik, who came to Philadelphia from the same job with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and left it for that position in San Francisco. Jake didn’t have much to say about Ormandy, or anything else in my hearing.

  • dgar Self says:

    Interesting account, Peter Phillips, of Gilbert Kaplan’s session in Cardiff. His second recording of Mahler’s “Resurrection” with the VPO for DGG, using Mahler’s rehearsal score with 500′ corrections and notes, is one of the great ones, far better than Boulez’s with the same orchestra, engineers, and around the same time also for DGG. aI rate it with Klemperer and Bruno Walter.