Back to the Orchestra’s future: One musician’s story

Back to the future: Youth and the Orchestra

4 minute read
Ormandy (c. 1935) broke age barriers and race barriers, too.
Ormandy (c. 1935) broke age barriers and race barriers, too.
Because the Philadelphia Orchestra has lost roughly 40 percent of its audience over the past decade, much has been written in a general nature about the critical role played by public school music programs— now being cut or eliminated in many school districts— in developing audiences for serious music. Much has also been written about the efforts of Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy to cultivate young audiences during the Orchestra's salad years (1912-1980).

But how exactly does this process work at an individual level? Let me play "Back to the future" here to show specifically how a vigorous public school music program, combined with the Orchestra's outreach to young people, impacted a single individual student— namely, me.

1938: Miss Hirschfeld and Rachmaninoff

My neighborhood piano teacher, Letitia Hirschfeld, an African American, introduced me to Rachmaninoff in my elementary school years. She revealed the fascinating life story of this Russian conductor, composer, pianist, immigrant and nobleman, who fled from his native country during its revolution. Miss Hirschfeld had me learn to play a version of Rachmaninoff's best-known piece, his Prelude in C# Minor.

Consequently, I begged my parents to take me to the Academy of Music to hear Rachmaninoff play a recital, especially his own version of the Prelude in C# Minor. Later, in 1945, George Walker, a student of Rudolf Serkin at Curtis, was the African American first to win the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Auditions. I saw him play Rachmaninoff's very demanding Third Piano Concerto. I subsequently became a lifetime collector of recordings, especially of Rachmaninoff.

1940: Stokey and Mickey

In those days we kids spent our pennies each weekend to see Walt Disney cartoons in the local movie theater. Perhaps for that reason, Leopold Stokowski pushed the idea of collaborating with the Disney studio: The Orchestra would provide classical music as background for Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse.

I spent my pennies and became dazzled visually and engulfed by sound. Stokowski, for his part, made the cover of Time Magazine over the caption: "He and Mickey Mouse put on a brand-new act." With this stroke of marketing and technological genius, Stokowski made his Orchestra and classical music accessible and enjoyable to millions of Disney fans of all ages worldwide.

1945: A black soloist at the Dell

That July, Mother had a visit from Dorothy Maynor, her former elementary school student from Norfolk, Virginia. Dorothy had been asked by Eugene Ormandy to sing Depuis le jour by Charpentie at Robin Hood Dell. In an age when racial segregation was accepted with little question, Ormandy was inviting an African-American artist whom my family knew.

1946: Music major at Penn

I graduated from West Philadelphia High as an honor student in music, winning the music prize. Among my classmates was Anshel Brusilow, who later became concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1959-1966). I went on to become a music major at Penn, where one of my classmates was Henry Smith, subsequently first trombonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1957-1967). Another fellow student (in composition) was William Smith, later the Philadelphia Orchestra's assistant conductor and principal keyboardist (1952-1985).

1950: Visiting Ormandy

Dr. Louis Wersen, director of music for the Philadelphia public schools, hired me to start an orchestra at Sulzberger Junior High School in West Philadelphia. He filled my five-year order for new instruments. Many of my Sulzberger students went on to receive college music scholarships. They also had two memorable visits with Ormandy in the Green Room of the Academy of Music. In 1953, Theresa Baker, an African American student at Sulzberger, played twice with the Philadelphia Orchestra, once for its Children Concerts at Robin Hood Dell and then again in the fall. Her school and community, needless to add, were very proud.

No doubt the moral support and encouragement of my family deserves some credit for the rich musical life I subsequently enjoyed as a teacher, pianist, conductor and finally chairman of the Music Department at Morgan State University. But how far do you suppose moral support would have carried an African-American kid like me in the 1930s without the platforms provided by the Philadelphia public schools and the Philadelphia Orchestra? And how far do you suppose kids of any race or background are likely to pursue Classical music without those platforms today?

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation