In Philadelphia, where dowagers inherit their mother’s hats and old institutions fossilize rather than fade away, an unsettling change is imminent at the venerable Academy of Music. Eugene Ormandy, at 79, is preparing to step down from the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra after 43 years—the longest tenure of any major symphony conductor in U.S. history—and hand over the baton to Riccardo Muti, 37, a dashing, classically handsome music man from Italy.
The passage will not be abrupt. Details must be worked out, discreetly and deferentially, such as what Ormandy’s emeritus role and title will be, and how much time Muti must spend in Philadelphia each year. Because he has so many commitments, Muti probably will not take over for another season or two, but the announcement of his appointment will come any day. “Nothing is official,” says Muti, “but we are nearing the conclusion.”
One thing is certain: Ormandy will not simply disappear altogether. “The day I retire,” he once said, “will be the day I die.” He now says, “I will conduct as long as my health permits me to. But should my health or any part of my health fail, I would be the first one to stop. I would hope the Philadelphia Orchestra would ask me back as a guest.”
In fact, it was rumors of increasing deafness and occasional lapses of Ormandy’s renowned memory (he has committed hundreds of musical works to memory and never conducts with a score) that caused the orchestra association’s board of directors to consider the future. “Ormandy’s hearing is about what you would expect in a man of his age,” confides a friend. “That extra sense that great musicians have is gone,” says another. “When he was criticized in the local press for this, he developed an ‘I’ll-show-them’ attitude, attempting new works. Had he stuck to meat-and-potatoes compositions, the change could have been put off for a year or two.”
At least Ormandy has handpicked his heir, discovering him in Florence in 1970 when the Philadelphia Orchestra was on tour. Unbeknownst to Muti, the old maestro eavesdropped in a darkened hall as Riccardo rehearsed the Maggio Musicale orchestra. That night Ormandy invited Muti—who was 28 at the time—to be a guest conductor in Philadelpia. Six years and dozens of guest appearances later, Ormandy made it known privately that the young Italian was his choice as a successor. Ormandy recalls, “When I saw Mr. Muti, I said, ‘This is natural,’ and it would be wonderful if he would take over when my time comes.” In 1976 Muti was anointed as Principal Guest Conductor, the first in the orchestra’s history to hold the title.
Muti’s credentials are solid. “He has excellent ears,” says Ormandy. “He studied with the same kind of teachers in Italy as I studied with in Hungary—the classicists, very brilliant, very first class.” The third of five sons of a doctor, Riccardo was born in Naples and was taken to his first opera (Aïda) when he was 2. He began playing the violin and the piano as a child, but not until he was 20, when he was called in to substitute as conductor at a student concert in Milan, did he discover his true musical vocation. “I’d not thought of conducting before,” he remembers. “It came very naturally, and for me it was like a drug.” When he was 26 Muti won the prestigious Guido Cantelli Competition for conductors and was soon starring with the major orchestras of Europe.
Like Mehta, Ozawa and others of his peripatetic generation of conductors, Muti has spread his talents over several continents. His key commitments are in London, as principal conductor of the Philharmonia, which he has transformed in six years from a fusty also-ran into the most dynamic of London’s five major orchestras, and in Florence, where his Maggio Musicale presents concerts and operas throughout the year. These, plus guest conducting elsewhere, keep Muti on the road so constantly that he is something of a guest conductor with his own family. Of late he has been at home in his sumptuous Ravenna town-house no more than two months a year. As a result, wife Maria Cristina, 35, a one-time lyric soprano, manages the family finances and the roles of both parents. “I must be man and woman with the children [Francesco, 7, and Chiara, 5],” she says. “He is too good and sweet to them.”
Until 1975 the couple lived in Florence, but Riccardo decided that was too close to the Maggio Musicale for comfort. “You can’t separate completely if you’re living on top of the job,” he explains. “Even the little problems were brought home.” Ravenna, a two-hour drive in his white Mercedes, is just the right distance.
The attitude that an orchestra should be kept at baton’s length—plus the jet age conductor’s appetite for directing several orchestras in sequence—is “almost painful” to Eugene Ormandy. “I belong to the school where you are married to only one orchestra,” he says. “You live with it 24 hours a day, for all the time you are there. You know everyone in the orchestra, his quality, his limitations; you know how to correct your musical approach.”
Ormandy himself has dedicated his life to the Philadelphia. He lives with his retiring wife, Margaret, 65, in the grand old Barclay Hotel on Rittenhouse Square, just three blocks from the Academy of Music. (An attempt to live in the suburbs was doomed when the songbirds woke him at dawn, because, said Ormandy, proud of his perfect pitch, “all songbirds sing off-key.”) Apart from a daily swim, he devotes whatever spare time he has to “studying scores—anything else is a waste of time.”
Because of his compulsive attention to organization, Ormandy has been called a “gray-flannel-suit conductor.” But the fact that every one of the Philadelphia’s 109 musicians was hired by him has enabled the maestro to mold the orchestra into what many, critics consider the world’s finest. When he turns it over to Riccardo Muti, Eugene Ormandy says, “He can do anything he wants as far as I am concerned. What will happen after me, I don’t know.”