The Philadelphia Orchestra has been called the Rolls Royce of orchestras. Its many partisans assert that it is, and has been for nearly a century, the finest orchestra in the world.
The Philadelphia Orchestra was founded in 1900. Fritz Scheel was appointed the ensemble's first music director and served until his 1907 death. In its earliest years, the orchestra could not boast the exalted reputation it would develop just two decades later, but it did manage to attract some notable figures, including Richard Strauss who guest-conducted, and Artur Rubinstein who appeared as soloist in 1906. Scheel was succeeded by Carl Pohlig, a Mahler protégée. Under him, the orchestra remained a respectable, but hardly world-class, ensemble. Still, Rachmaninov and other major musicians appeared with the orchestra during his five-year tenure.
In 1912, the orchestra management appointed the young and then-obscure conductor, Leopold Stokowski, to be music director. By 1920, the orchestra had become widely recognized as the finest on American shores and among the greatest in the world. Stokowski had transformed a merely talented ensemble into a world-class orchestra in less than a decade. And his programming was boldly individual: he performed many new compositions, often ones requiring extravagant forces, such as the Mahler Eighth Symphony, which he introduced in 1916. He attracted the leading artists of the day and regularly conducted transcriptions of his own devising (often with the aid of Lucien Caillet) of works by Bach and others. More importantly, he led the Philadelphians in numerous recordings in the 1920s and 1930s for RCA, far outpacing most other conductors and orchestras of that period in this endeavor. Also under Stokowski, the orchestra became the first to have its own radio broadcast underwritten by commercial sponsors and to perform on a movie soundtrack, The Big Broadcast of 1937. Among Stokowski's innovations in the playing style of the orchestra was the introduction of "free bowing" for the string players, which resulted in a lusher, fuller sound. Many, however, asserted the thicker sonorities rendered a less appropriate sound to the more delicately scored works from the Classical era.
In 1938, the management appointed a new music director, Eugene Ormandy, who had become assistant conductor in 1936. Stokowski still led performances and made recordings with the orchestra until 1940. Ormandy dispensed with Stokowski's "free bowing," and, many have claimed, fashioned an even greater collective virtuosity from his players. The leading musicians of the mid-twentieth century regularly played and recorded with the Philadelphians, including Rachmaninov (who died in 1943), Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Szigeti, and Oistrakh. Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra continued to make recordings with RCA in the beginning of his tenure, but switched to Columbia in the 1940s. They would return to RCA, however, in 1968. For both labels they made recordings mainly from the standard repertory and its fringes, but paying particular attention to the works of Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. They also played and recorded a fair amount of American music, including works by Copland, Harris, Piston, and Gershwin.
By the early 1970s, the orchestra was said to be in decline by some critics and concertgoers. Ormandy selected his successor, Riccardo Muti, who became music director in 1980. Muti also made a large number of recordings during his 10 years in Philadelphia, including a well-received cycle of Beethoven symphonies for EMI. Some view the Muti years negatively, but overall the orchestra maintained its generally high reputation.