The Music Makers: Angels of Grandeur and Epiphany

by James Kreger, cellist

The American Federation of Musicians accomplished a wonderful thing in the 1960’s when they sponsored the Congress of Strings and moved mountains to establish a successful nearly ten year program aimed at promoting string playing in the United States and Canada and intensifying a nationwide interest in live music.

The photo contained in the video shows Eugene Ormandy, noted conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, putting the Congress of Strings summer scholarship orchestra through its paces prior to conducting an enthusiastically received public concert Friday evening July 12, 1963 at Michigan State University (attached live recording). The 100-piece unit consists of youthful instrumentalists 15 to 22 years old. They are chosen in competitive auditions throughout the United States and Canada to attend an all - expense eight week summer session under the top first chair symphony teachers of the day, wholly sponsored by the American Federation of Musicians and some 700 affiliated locals. This post originated from the May 2014 sad news of the death of Paul Tobias, principal cellist in the photo. It reminded me of a very special, magical moment in my life and undoubtedly in the lives of many if not most of those one hundred string players that fateful day in the summer of 1963. In addition to Paul Tobias the other ‘cellists in the photo are Virginia Brown (now known as Jennifer Langham), Sally Guenther, and James Kreger. On the outside second stand first violins is Tania Rudensky from St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada. Years later she married Metropolitan Opera baritone Cornell MacNeil. Tania and I played quite a bit of chamber music together that summer, and before the end of our session she gave me a beautifully inscribed book, “The Art of String Quartet Playing,” which I treasure to this day.

The first rehearsal created an emotional groundswell. With great anticipation we all were looking forward to working with Eugene Ormandy, who for many years, along with Leopold Stokowski, preserved and cultivated the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra string sound. When Ormandy asked to begin with the Barber Adagio, something was about to happen in that large room at Williams Hall, Michigan State University. It would cast an indelible mark on the souls of 100 string players for the rest of our lives. As Maestro Ormandy held up his arms and began to conduct, what an incredible sound filled our space! It was an indescribable, unbelievably massive but hushed, wide sound, pregnant with pathos, enveloping everyone in its grandeur and majesty. It seemed as if we had been lifted out of our skins, transported by pure sound launching us up and out into the soul of the universe. It was as if we were not actually playing at all but riding some omnipotent divine wave. Looking back to the ecstasy of those few moments...which seemed timeless...I now realize we were experiencing what some would later describe as an epiphany.