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Phyllis White Rodríguez-Peralta

Philadelphia Maestros
Ormandy, Muti, Sawallisch

Phyllis White Rodríguez-Peralta

A Q&A with Phyllis White Rodríguez-Peralta about the the three conductors who are profiled in her new book

Q: What do you remember about your first experiences seeing the Philadelphia Orchestra perform?
A: My first experience with the Philadelphia Orchestra was in Ann Arbor during the spring Festival, which Ormandy conducted every year. We lived in Ann Arbor for four years, and so we became "aficionados" of the Orchestra. When we moved to Philadelphia, we were right at home with "our" Orchestra.

Q: Do you have a favorite performer, instrument, composer and/or piece of music?
A: One of my great memories, probably from the late 60s, was a Beethoven concerto that Alicia de Larrocha played with the Orchestra. She was so pleased with the performance that she jumped up from the piano, ran to Ormandy, and threw her arms around him. This appreciation was very typical of all soloists who played with Ormandy. Over all, my favorite composer is Antonin Dvorák, with Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss as close seconds. I have several favorite compositions from a variety of composers. Since the violin is my favorite instrument, I love most violin concertos and violin music.

Q: Concerning the "Philadelphia Sound," you write in your Preface: "The seeds were sown by Stokowski, flowered with Ormandy, were strictly cultivated by Muti, and flowered again, but with more definition, under Sawallisch." What do you think accounts for the different styles of each conductor?
A: I think the differences come from both the intent and the personality of the conductor. Ormandy concentrated on beautiful sound above all else; Muti wanted precision and balance and a different style for each composer; Sawallisch, in a certain way, combined the approaches.

Q: Do you have a favorite conductor?
A: I do, but I took great pains to be nonpartisan in my writing. It pleased me when three musicians read the first draft and each chose a different conductor as my favorite. Readers can make their own decisions about my preference.

Q: Is there a particular composer or piece of music you associate with each of the conductors, and can you recall seeing a particularly inspired performance by each conductor?
A: I associate Rachminoff's music with Ormandy. They were good friends and often worked together. With Muti I associate the concert operas that he conducted with the Orchestra. With Sawallisch it is the music of Strauss and Brahms, plus the German repertoire in general. There are so many inspired performances that it would be difficult to list them.

Q: The relationship of the Orchestra members and the Orchestra's board with each conductor is very important and Philadelphia Maestros addresses both of these concerns in its pages. How do you feel that these relationships have shifted over time?
A: Rather than "shifted" I would say that the relationship between Music Director and the board has an alternating pattern. Stokowski's relationship was turbulent, and he proffered his resignation several times. Ormandy and the Orchestra Board had good relations as evidenced by his 44 years as Music Director. Muti announced soon into his directorship that "the board worked for the Orchestra, not the other way around." Relations between Sawallisch and the board were again calm.

Q: You were able to interview Lang Lang, Sarah Chang, and Gary Graffman about their relationship with the conductors. Why did you choose these three performers, and did anything they say surprise you?
A: I chose these three because of their links to the Philadelphia scene. Gary Graffman began studying at Curtis when he was 7, and was the soloist many times with Ormandy. Lang Lang came to Curtis at age 14, studied under Mr. Graffman, and made his debut with the Orchestra under Sawallisch. Sarah Chang was born in Philadelphia and made her debut with the Orchestra under Muti. I was surprised at the warmth and admiration that each expressed for the conductors.

Q: The book has some beautiful photos of a young Ormandy at the violin, Muti passionately conducting, and Swallisch at rehearsal. What can you say about the photos used in the book?
A: The University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library has an extensive collection of Ormandy's photos. I am told that the one of Ormandy and Stokowski is very rare—it's the only photo of both conductors posed together. Since the Archives of the Orchestra have been closed, it was possible to obtain only one of Muti from this rich source. Fortunately The Philadelphia Inquirer made possible those of Sawallisch, all from his later years.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write this book? And what made you focus on just these three conductors?
A: I have always been fascinated by the role of the conductor—particularly the three in my book—because I have watched them consistently over the years. I began by reading every thing I could find about each conductor. Then I went to the Archives of the Orchestra (then open), and those of the Music Division of the Free Library. The University of Pennsylvania Libraries has voluminous material on Ormandy. From there, I began my interviews with members of the Orchestra.

Q: Why did you decide to write this particular book—a homage to the three conductors and the Orchestra—instead of continuing your previous scholarly work?
A: Throughout my professional career I wrote two books and many articles and essays in the field of Spanish and Latin American literature. After I retired from Temple University, I had the desire to write something different, and so I turned to my other great love—classical music. It was a joy to write this book, especially because the many musicians that I interviewed were so enthusiastic and so generous with their time. This opened up different perspectives and a new focus to my writing.

Q: Do you play a musical instrument? Did you ever dream of being a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra?
A: I played the piano until my daughter was in 3rd grade—by then she could play my entire repertoire much better than I. Vicariously I have shared her musical education at Juilliard and her subsequent career as a pianist. I did minor in music as an undergraduate, but I never imagined myself anywhere but in the audience listening to the Orchestra.


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