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5, Sep 2015
Philadelphia's Academy of Music

The Academy of Music: unfairly maligned

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic


Let’s set the record straight. Despite some misinformed recent slurs, Philadelphia’s Academy of Music was a showplace for fine orchestral sounds for more than a century.

In 2003 the Philadelphia Orchestra moved out and the Academy became a venue for touring musicals. Extensive renovations modernized one of the nation’s oldest concert halls, and a Broadway-style sound system was installed in a building once known for its pristine acoustics. Publicists said that this was a return the to building’s original intent.

Now, it’s true that the hall was not originally designed for symphony orchestras, but that’s only because such orchestras were not in existence in 1839 when the Academy was planned.

The Steiermarkisches Orchestra from Germany, consisting of 20 players, had toured America in 1838, but there were no large symphony orchestras in the United States until the New York Philharmonic started giving concerts in 1842. Even after that, no other city formed an orchestra for decades. The Boston Symphony wasn’t organized until 1880, the Chicago Symphony until 1891 and the Philadelphia Orchestra not until 1900.

The Academy’s first performance was in 1857 and opera and theater were the main attractions in the hall’s first 43 years. Edwin Forrest, the most famous thespian of his era, played here. Edwin Booth starred as Henry V, Hamlet and Iago and played Macbeth opposite Charlotte Cushman. Vaudevillians De Wolf Hopper, Lillian Russell, Fay Templeton and Weber & Fields trod these boards. In addition, political conventions and society balls took place, and once even an indoor football game, Penn vs. Princeton, in 1889.

In June 1942, the nation’s second Stage Door Canteen opened in the basement of the Academy of Music. (The first wartime canteen opened three months earlier in the basement of Manhattan’s 44th Street Theater, later torn down.) Antoinette Perry, Helen Hayes and Bert Lytell, president of Actors Equity, came to Philadelphia for the occasion. It remained as an attraction for servicemen until the end of World War II.

But what’s being ignored of late is the proud reputation which the Academy achieved from 1900 onwards as the home of one of the world’s best orchestras. Herbert Kupferberg, a New Yorker, wrote: “The modern symphony orchestra…has reached its highest gloss of perfection in the city of Philadelphia” because conductors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy developed a “uniquely ripe and resonant sound. They honed and polished and refined its sound until it became perhaps the sleekest vehicle of musical expression ever created.”

Then, during Ricardo Muti’s tenure as conductor (1980-1992) he and some journalists started to attack the Academy’s acoustics as they urged the building of a modern complex. In order to raise money for the new hall at the Kimmel Center, it seemed as if boosters had to amplify their criticisms of the old.

Now that the orchestra has moved to a modern new home one block away, it’s time to reconsider the bad-mouthing of the old hall. The “Grand Old Lady of Broad Street” received a lot of compliments for almost a century-and-a-half before a new generation of critics started to trash it and some even tried to re-write history.

Bernard Holland in the New York Times of April 6, 2003, reported what he called the “plausible if perverse theory” that the Philadelphia Orchestra sound developed because musicians struggled “over several generations to hear beautiful sounds within themselves while playing in the Academy of Music’s deathly dullness.”

This is a theory unsupported by the facts. When I interviewed dozens of orchestral players for a radio documentary in 1969, they spoke in detail about their special sound. In close to a hundred hours of conversations, no one complained about dry acoustics.

Stokowski conducting
Stokowski conducting

My parents knew players in the orchestra, so I grew up with men such as my relative Sol Cohen, who played trumpet from 1918 to 1945 and then, under the name of Saul Caston, became conductor of the Denver Symphony. Also a former concertmaster, Mischa Mishakoff. And one-time concertmaster Michael Gusikoff and his brothers, the cellist Isadore Gusikoff and the trombonist Charles Gusikoff. Madame Gusikoff was my childhood piano teacher.

I added to my knowledge of the orchestra’s history when I talked with musicians who played in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1900, its debut season, up through its formative years for that documentary series on public radio.

The orchestra’s high reputation was primarily for its rich sound quality, which creates a startling contrast to what arrivistes started saying. There’s a radical difference between their opinions and what I heard from orchestra musicians whose experience goes back to the orchestra’s early years.

Here’s some chronology: Within the Orchestra’s first decade, an effort was made to move out of the Academy, but it had nothing to do with acoustics. In its coverage of the recent relocation, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a move was considered in 1908, implying that people thought the acoustics were bad even then. But that’s not the fact. The 1908 interest in a new hall was because some board members wanted an exclusive, orchestra-owned home where they could practice and play whenever they wanted to, instead of sharing time with other tenants.

When Leopold Stokowski became conductor of the orchestra in 1912 and found that rehearsals were held in another hall because the Academy wasn’t available during the week, he made a scene, displaying the fiery temperament that became one of his trademarks. The owners of the Academy made it more available from that point onward, and ideas about moving were abandoned. (This half-hearted attempt to move was of so little significance, it wasn’t even mentioned in Frances Wister’s history of the orchestra’s first 25 years nor in Herbert Kupferberg’s later history, “Those Fabulous Philadelphians.”)

A real, major attempt to find a new home came in the late 1920s, when Philadelphia tried to emulate Paris by building a wide boulevard from City Hall to the city’s Fairmount Park and calling it Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It was lined with trees and impressive new buildings: an art museum, science museum, Rodin museum and an Academy of Natural Sciences. Civic leaders suggested that the Orchestra move to the Parkway, and Stokowski embraced the idea. Stoky rhapsodized about a Temple of Music where the conductor would be in the dark and the audience could focus on the sound alone. But Stokowski had second thoughts about his invisibility and amended his recommendation to say that the musicians needed to see the conductor’s beat, so a spotlight should be trained on his hands. At no point did anyone speak about acoustics as a reason for moving. Eventually, the Great Depression dried up financing and the plans were abandoned.

When the orchestra started recording in the Academy, in 1926, record-buyers and critics raved that the sonics were richer than those of any other orchestra. Sir Malcolm Sargeant told musicians in London that he grew up loving those Philadelphia recordings and was inspired by them. Many other listeners adored them, too, and it was because of the sound quality more than Stokowski’s controversial interpretations.

The Philly Orchestra recorded at the Academy from 1926 to 1940, except for five years during the depression, when only a portion of the orchestra was taken into a recording studio to reduce costs. It might be simplistic to say that the rich sound that made the orchestra famous was mainly due to the Academy’s acoustics, although that surely has to be one factor.

When Stokowski appeared in the 1937 Universal film One Hundred Men and a Girl he recorded the music at the Academy rather than in Hollywood. He explained at the time that one of his reasons was the fact that “the acoustics of the Academy of Music are extremely good” and the film’s director, Henry Koster, agreed with him. Koster told me that when he came to the Academy for the first time “I understood why his records sounded so beautiful.” William Garity, the Academy Award-winning sound engineer of the Walt Disney studio, said “the acoustic properties of the Academy of Music were excellent.”

Stokowski had a reputation for being the most knowledgeable conductor on the subject of acoustics, and he spoke about the Academy to New York reporters in 1960: “What they have done there is to remake that wonderful hall and I believe the foundations are very good, so I hope that hall will last forever, because it has one of the finest acoustics in the world.”

In the 1930s and 40s, the sound that Toscanini made with his NBC Symphony was compared unfavorably with the sound that Stokowski and Ormandy got from the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Ormandy became co-conductor with Stokowski in 1936 and sole conductor in 1941.) Most critics at that time said that the difference was because NBC’s Studio 8H was acoustically inferior to the Academy of Music.

The public got a chance to check that out when interesting circumstances brought Toscanini to the Academy of Music in 1941. Stoky and the Philadelphians had recorded for RCA Victor for more than two decades, and their recordings were big sellers world-wide. But Stokowski left Philadelphia in 1941 and started recording for Columbia with his new All-American Youth Orchestra. RCA Victor needed to issue new records to compete with Stoky’s and felt that Ormandy’s name didn’t have enough stature in the marketplace. So the company decided to make Toscanini its principal conductor for recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the orchestra cooperated by naming him as the Philly’s principal guest conductor for the 1941-42 season. Eight albums were made of compositions by Debussy, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Berlioz. These Toscanini recordings in the Academy of Music were described by RCA Victor’s annotator Mortimer Frank as “warmer, weightier and more tonally opulent than the NBC Symphony.”

Then a nationwide strike by the Musicians Union started in July of 1942 and barred all orchestra recordings for two years. By the time the ban ended, the wartime draft had killed the Youth Orchestra and so Stokowski no longer posed a threat to the management of the Philadelphia Orchestra or to RCA Victor. After the end of the strike, Ormandy and the Philadelphians began to record for Columbia, while RCA put all its efforts into promoting Toscanini’s recordings with the NBC Symphony. RCA at this point felt its interests would be served by removing Toscanini’s Philadelphia recordings from their catalog.

In the 1950s, Columbia advertised the Philadelphia as “The World’s Greatest Orchestra” and few listeners quarreled with the slogan. I talked with Thomas Frost, who produced the Philadelphia Orchestra recordings for Columbia in those days, up til 1968. He was born in Vienna, grew up in New York, studied violin and music composition and is currently producing recordings by artists such as Arkady Volodos and Hillary Hahn. He says that he preferred the acoustics of Carnegie Hall to those of the Academy of Music, “but I never thought the Academy was a lousy hall. I liked Carnegie better, but not that much better. From my viewpoint as an educated listener, I was not unhappy with the Academy’s sound. And neither Eugene Ormandy nor the musicians were unhappy. In fact some musicians would have preferred to record there. They didn’t understand why Columbia and I insisted on recording elsewhere.”

The reason that Columbia went into other places for recordings was two-fold. First, the Academy’s proscenium wasn’t wide enough to place stereo mikes far enough apart to get separation. Secondly, street noises and subway sounds could be heard at the Academy. Frost points out that the same reasons caused the New York Philharmonic to record at the Manhattan Center on 34th Street and in Brooklyn’s St. George Hotel instead of at Carnegie Hall. “You could hear the subways when you made recordings at Carnegie,” says Frost.

Columbia put onto disk what Frost calls his “idealized version of what I heard at the concerts at the Academy of Music.” He’d come down from Manhattan to attend Saturday night concerts and hear the music, then record it on Sundays. He didn’t try to create a different sound. He liked the sound in the Academy but he had his own technique: “Other producers put upper strings on one side and lower strings on the other. I spread the string sound. Also I put an extra mike on the violins.”

Frost loved to bring out details in the orchestration. “If the composer wrote it in the score, I want to hear it, and I’d make a special effort so that listeners will hear it.” Frost reports that Ormandy asked for beautiful tone and a lot of vibrato from his strings. He also asked his violinists to sit forward in their chairs and reach out with their instruments. According to Frost, there never was any hint that Ormandy was trying to overcome any acoustic obstacle. He simply was a former violinist who loved the sound of strings.

Hershel Gordon was a cellist who played in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1948 to 1956. He resigned at an early age to go into other work and was not an admirer of Ormandy. Therefore, you can trust his comments as being objective when he said that the orchestra in those days produced wonderful sound: “And we never had to play out. You could hear the softest passages clearly from any seat in the Academy.”

In the 1950s, the Academy was considered one of the finest-sounding halls in the USA by most critics. When the tough B. H. Haggin wanted to give his highest praise to Carnegie Hall, he wrote that “Carnegie Hall was acoustically even finer than the Academy of Music.”

The claim that the Academy is really an opera house and never was meant to be a concert hall is technically true, but misleading. The architect Leo Beranak put things in perspective in his 1962 book “Music, Acoustics and Architecture,” where he wrote that the Academy of Music “is unquestionably the finest opera house in the United States and among the best concert halls as well.” In addition to being president emeritus of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Beranek was also chairman of the board of the Boston Symphony, so he was thoroughly familiar with that orchestra’s home and naturally was partial to Boston, but he still gave the Philadelphia Academy of Music his high praise.

Joseph Silverstein, one of the world’s leading violinist-teacher-conductors, was concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1962 to 1984. Before that, he studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute for five years and played in the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 1953-54 season. Therefore, he’s qualified to compare the two halls. “The Academy wasn’t quite as resonant as Symphony Hall,” he says, “but it was very, very clear. Sitting upstairs, far from the stage, you felt the orchestra was close. Then, in the 1960s, that beautiful, warm acoustic vanished.”

Silverstein’s closing comment is a clue to something. What people heard up until the 1960s was different from what people have heard since then. Considering all this, how can we explain the disparity between what musicians said before and what critics say now?

I offer two explanations. Firstly, tastes have changed. The coming of hi-fi stereo systems spawned a generation who tweaked their home systems to create booming, reverberant sonics that were unlike anything heard previously in the concert hall. Then rock performers started blasting their music at higher volume levels, and younger listeners became accustomed to that.

And Broadway shows began using amplification. Old-time theatergoers used to enjoy sitting forward in their seats, straining to hear the nuances of natural voices coming from the stage. Newer attendees expect to sit back and have the sound hit them in the face. Although classical audiences don’t want amplification, they can’t help being influenced by what’s happened on Broadway and in pop music, so they expect sound that has more bloom or reverberance. Mellow sounds that were considered pleasurable in the first half of the 20th century have come to be labeled dry and dead.

Secondly, the Academy of Music actually had its sound altered, and nothing was said about it at the time. I feel like an investigative reporter as I talk with Philadelphia Orchestra officials and players, trying to uncover a dirty little secret from the past. What I find involves the installation of a new organ in September of 1960. Presented by Mrs. Efrem Zimbalist, heiress of the Curtis Publishing fortune, it was an Aeolian-Skinner instrument said to be “the finest ever installed in an American music hall.” It had 4102 pipes and 73 stops, the world’s largest portable pipe organ. It was made portable so that it could be wheeled on and off stage in sections. To support its great weight and its cumbersome moves on and off stage, concrete was poured under the stage, filling a space that previously had been left hollow to create natural reverberance under the floor boards.

The Academy was designed in the 1850s with an inverted parabolic brick wall against the soil, then a hollow space, then a wooden floor of slightly convex form to radiate the sound. After the concrete-pouring in 1960, the orchestra’s sound never was reflected properly.

Violinist Joseph Silverstein explains: “When I came back to play as soloist in the Academy in the late 1960s I wondered what happened to the hall. As part of the original design, the basement had the same parabolic shape as the ceiling, and the hall resonated like a bass drum. But they put in air conditioning, and the old blue acoustical shell from Stokowski’s time was junked in favor of a metal shell. Then they poured concrete to support the organ and that was the final blow.”

That problem was compounded by the later introduction of cinder block (to a building that was previously all wood, brick and stone) in order to extend the stage, and the joining of he Academy (which previously was free-standing) to the Academy House condo complex behind it.

Mezzo-soprano Nell Rankin complained in the early 1960s to conductor Christofer Macatsoris that something had changed in the Academy’s sound, but she didn’t know what. Most other musicians and critics never took note of a change. The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s critic, Samuel Singer, who reported the installation of the new organ, didn’t notice a problem. “I don’t know what they’re yappin’ about,” he told me. “By golly, you could hear everything clearly in that hall, even in the amphitheater the highest balcony.” The Inquirer‘s next music critic, Daniel Webster, though, thought that something was wrong: “I arrived in Philadelphia in December, 1963, from Boston. After hearing the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall, I was aghast at the Academy’s shortcomings. The dryness and blank spots, especially downstairs, were real problems. I discovered much later that they had done something under the stage that harmed the acoustics.”

Ward Marston, one of the world’s most-honored record producers, intuitively guessed what happened. He started attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts in the 1960s and says that he found the sound to be well-balanced but small, “sort of like looking at the orchestra through the wrong end of a telescope.” He says the Academy is by no means a poor-sounding hall, and he does not agree with the extreme criticism of the Academy. “Upstairs in particular, where I usually sit, the acoustics are fine, a small but beautifully-balanced sound, always in good proportion. It’s my impression that people tampered with the Academy during Ormandy’s tenure, and did things to it that deadened the acoustics.”

It may be a coincidence, but observers who grew up in Philadelphia, like Singer and Marston, are happier with the Academy’s sound than critics who moved to Philadelphia from elsewhere, like Webster, Peter Dobrin and David Patrick Stearns. Silverstein, who was raised in Detroit but grew to love the Academy, is an exception to that generalization.

In recent decades, the Academy has been remodeled for comfort, beauty and sound, but the concrete remains where it was poured and is said to be unremovable. So concert-goers after 1960 never heard the sound that I and the older musicians grew up with.

The new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, has a relatively reverberant sound, in tune with most modern tastes. But let’s not get carried away and unfairly attack the Orchestra’s old home. Different listeners can debate how much reverberation they like in their concert halls, but let’s not perpetuate false history.