Stokowski’s first rehearsal with the Philadelphia Orchestra

On Stokowski’s first rehearsal with the Philadelphia Orchestra:

From Oscar Schwar, a fellow faculty member at Curtis who became my friend, I heard the details of Stokowski’s first contact with the orchestra.  He would never forget, he said, that Monday morning of October 7, 1912, when an amazingly young and handsome Stokowski, wearing a light blue shirt open at the neck and gray flannel trousers, sprang onto the podium of their depressing and overcrowded rehearsal room.  At a prearranged signal the orchestra rose simultaneously.  Having heard of Stokowski’s Olympian detachment, they stood there, somewhat awkwardly, a look of surprise and a forced smile appeared on Stokowski’s face as he gestured them to be seated.  They were to start the rehearsal with Brahm’s Symphony no. 1 in  C-minor.  After a few seconds of reflection, he raised his ice-blue eyes and said crisply, “Guten Tag.  Brahms! First mooment.”  Then, almost instantaneously and with a slashing stab, down came his baton.

The unexpectedly swift downbeat caught most of the players unprepared to begin that monumental opening.  When two or three straggled in late, Stokowski stopped them.  Bending slightly forward, fixing them with blazing eyes, the baton held aloft like a sabre, he gave the downbeat again in a lightning stroke.  This time, all the players involved came in like one man.

“But how they came in,” Schwar recalled, “I could hardly recognize the men I had been playing with or the music that we thought we knew so well.  It was as though we had been given some magic potion.  Of course, in a way we had, for none of us had ever experienced such authority and vitality before.  This man went straight to the heart of the music.  He formed and molded every phrase and with almost no physical effort.  Everyone had heard that Nikisch achieved maximum precision with a minimum of bodily motion and that he was Stokowski’s idol.  It was immediately obvious.  With almost invisible indications, Stokowski led us through that tamous movement in a way that he made it seem like a new piece.  With hardly a word of explanation, with no more than the twitch of a wrist or an eyebrow, he extracted the most from every player.  Only his facial expressions became more intense and his shoulder muscles more contracted as his burning eyes and curled fingers coazed us to ever great expression and sonority.  At the end of the movement, having played our hearts out in response to the man’s irresistible sweep, having been interrupted only a few times by some gentle suggestion or helpful comment, we were all filled with new hope and excitement. 

“But our joy was short lived.  before breaking for intermission, Stokowski said, ‘Gentlemen, we must do better, much better.  We are too far from an acceptable performance.'”  Almost the entire rehearsal time was devoted to the four movements of the symphony, the central work of the first program.  The reason we had been subjected to comparatively little detailed criticism became painfully clear.  Stokowski was not going to waste time or energy or instruction on a group of musicians, most of whom he had already decided would not be members of that orchestra one minute longer than necessary.  There was no use teaching or scolding, for it was not unwillingness, but sheer inability of all but a few musicians to meet the standards of our new leader.”

  Source: Chasins, Abram (1979) Leopold Stokowski: A Profile.  London: Robert Hale, p.70-71.