Weekend mornings on 88.7 KCME-FM
Welcome to Classical Music with Fred Kormos
Is it just me, or do symphony orchestras sound different than they once did? It’s not just me. Admittedly, my hearing isn’t as sharp as it once was and, perhaps, a bit of senility is beginning to creep into my old brain—but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Something else is going on.
I can remember a time, a half-century ago or so, when I would overhear a symphonic recording and, without seeing the record or record jacket, I’d instantly know which orchestra was playing. Back in those days, each orchestra had a unique, distinctive sound: the lushness of the Philadelphia Orchestra made their playing instantly recognizable, as did the almost unbelievable precision of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the razor-sharp brass and gossamer strings of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. European orchestras had their unique sounds, too; Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra would never have been mistaken for, say, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
That was a “golden age” of symphonic music. Sadly, those distinctive sounds appear to be gone.
Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting that orchestras don’t play as well these days as they once did—in fact, I’d go as far as to say that orchestral playing has never been better than it is today. But while today’s orchestras may be technically faultless, there’s one thing they don’t have: that personality that was so apparent in each orchestra. That sound was the result of the musicians and their conductors working together over the course of entire seasons; these days, however, orchestras’ music directors typically conduct fewer than half of their orchestras’ concerts.
Here are two examples: the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2013-2014 season offers 27 subscription concerts, out of which their music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will conduct only nine; and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, offering 31 subscription concerts in the upcoming season, will be led by their music director, Riccardo Muti, in only eight of them. So three times as many of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concerts are led by guest conductors than by their own conductor, and in Chicago it’s almost four times as many.
Why? Because it’s so easy! Many years ago, long-distance travel was difficult, time-consuming, and very expensive. But then came jet airliners; the first commercial jet flight took place in 1952, and since then aircraft have progressively gotten larger and able to fly further and faster, and for less money. So conductors spend a great deal of time out of town — they’re traveling from city to city, leading other orchestras, while their own orchestras are being conducted by a parade of guest conductors, whose orchestras are in turn being led by still other guest conductors who’ve left their orchestras . . .
This is wonderful, in a way: one can enjoy a variety of conductors without having to travel to the cities where they’re based—they come to you! But, as a result, orchestras’ distinctive personalities have pretty much disappeared; they can’t possibly develop a unique sound when they have to work with so many different conductors—each with his/her own particular style—during the course of a season. I miss the distinctive personalities orchestras used to have.
With the departure of our friend Quinn Riley, who was our charming host on Classical KCME Saturday and Sunday mornings for quite some time, I was asked to take over her shifts, and I also was asked to program the music for those weekend mornings. So, as much as I love the distinctive personalities the great orchestras used to have, I plan to program more of their recordings than we’ve customarily been hearing on Classical KCME. Of course, we’ll continue to hear lots of modern, digital recordings by today’s top performers and conductors, but they’ll be interspersed now and then with exceptional recordings from that “golden age” of symphonic music.
But not very old recordings. While there might be a certain magic to hearing Felix Weingartner conducting Wagner and Liszt, or Serge Koussevitzky conducting Prokofiev and Ravel, as those conductors actually knew those composers, recordings from the 1930s and 1940s have a limited frequency range and, often, intrusive background noise, making for a less-than-optimal listening experience. But with the advent of stereo recording toward the mid-1950s, sound quality rapidly improved; and now, with digital remastering, recordings from the mid- to late-1950s and the 1960s sound absolutely marvelous!
I hope you’ll join me on Saturday and Sunday mornings, if you can, and we’ll enjoy wondrous sounds created by the likes of Charles Münch with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eduard Van Beinum with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, Paul Paray with the Detroit Symphony, and Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic, all of them with their unique, distinctive personalities. And, of course, we’ll also hear great soloists of the past, violinists like Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern, and pianists like Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, all playing their hearts out just for you, in glorious stereo sound.
I very much look forward to sharing some of these wonderful recordings with you Saturday and Sunday mornings on Classical 88.7 KCME-FM!