History Lessons: Classic Refrain

On Sept. 27, 2018, UMS hosts The Philadelphia Orchestra at Hill. We look at the history of this collaboration.
By Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10


Read time: 5 minutes
Yo-Yo Ma (left front) plays with conductor Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra at the 1982 May Festival. Images courtesy of the University Musical Society unless otherwise noted.

The Philadelphia Orchestra held its first Hill Auditorium performance in 1913, but it was in 1936 that a near-50-year tradition began: it became the orchestra-in-residence for the Ann Arbor May Festival, an annual springtime series of concerts organized by the University Musical Society (UMS). Over the decades, the orchestra played with dozens of great classical and operatic singers, pianists, and other performers. Though The Philadelphia Orchestra last performed at the event in 1984, the festival continued until 1995.

On Sept. 27, 2018, UMS—the oldest performing arts presenter in the country—will once again host the orchestra when it returns for an evening of music at Hill. In commemoration, Michigan Alumnus pays tribute to some of the most noteworthy musical artists in May Festival history—all of whom performed with The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Eugene Ormandy, 1940

Eugene Ormandy, 1940

Eugene Ormandy, HDMUS’52

The man whose name and career would become synonymous with The Philadelphia Orchestra joined as an assistant conductor to Leopold Stokowski in 1936. In 1937, Ormandy conducted his first May Festival performance—he would participate in the Ann Arbor spring event every year until 1982. Near the end of his run, Ormandy closed out the final May Festival concerts with an orchestral arrangement of “The Victors.”

Marian Anderson (center) having tea backstage with guests at Hill, 1938

Marian Anderson, HDMUS’59

One year before being racially prohibited from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. (singing instead at the Lincoln Memorial), Anderson performed at the 1938 May Festival. The legendary contralto’s program ranged from Mozart to classic black spirituals. She returned to perform at Hill Auditorium at least 10 times—four of them with The Philadelphia Orchestra—and in 1959 became U-M’s first woman and first African-American commencement speaker.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1921.

Photo by Kubey-Rembrandt Studios, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff dedicated his final major work, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, to Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra. The Russian pianist/composer/conductor was a good friend of the ensemble but could not make it to perform at the May Festival until 1942 due to his demanding schedule. Rachmaninoff performed at Hill on several other occasions, with his first appearance in Ann Arbor taking place in 1920. He died in 1943.

An autographed portrait of Leontyne Price, addressed to UMS’s fifth president, Gail Rector (1968-86)

Leontyne Price

Price’s UMS debut came in the title role in “Aida” in a concert adaptation of the opera at the May Festival in 1957. It was an early look at what would become a signature role for the soprano, one of the first African-American leading artists at the Metropolitan Opera.

Glenn Gould warming up in the basement of Hill Auditorium before his May Festival UMS debut, 1958

Glenn Gould

Gould was very particular about many things, including giving concert performances. Nevertheless, the Canadian pianist, renowned for his keyboard interpretations of Bach, performed with The Philadelphia Orchestra at the 1958 May Festival.

Jessye Norman, 1993

Jessye Norman, MMUS’68, HSCD’87

American opera singer Norman made her UMS and May Festival debut in 1973 at the age of 28, five years after obtaining her master’s degree from U-M. Michigan Alumnus profiled Norman, particularly known for her Wagnerian repertoire, in 2014.

Vladimir Horowitz with his wife, Wanda, and Ormandy, in the Hill Auditorium lobby, circa late 1970s

Vladimir Horowitz

Following a 12-year hiatus from performing, the acclaimed pianist returned to the stage in the 1970s. Though Horowitz performed in Ann Arbor many times, before and after his self-imposed break, the 1978 May Festival was Horowitz’s only collaboration with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Though it came at the end of UMS’s 99th season, Horowitz returned in October to perform in the centennial anniversary concert. This fall opens UMS’s 140th season.

Conductor Eugene Ormandy and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, May Festival 1982

Yo-Yo Ma

The prodigal French-born American cellist made his Ann Arbor debut at the 1982 May Festival—one of Ormandy’s last. Ma came equipped with his antique Matteo Goffriller cello, crafted in 1722. To date, Ma has recorded more than 90 albums and received 18 Grammy Awards.

For a more extensive retrospective on the May Festival, be sure to read “The May Festival Rising” by James Tobin for the U-M Heritage Project.

UMSThe University Musical Society has historically been close partners with the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, including a nearly 50-year collaboration with the Ann Arbor May Festival. The tradition continues on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, with a program featuring pieces from the opera “Marnie”; Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances”; and Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, performed by Lisa Batiashvili. Tickets are available now.

Michigan Medicine presents this event in the 140th Annual Choral Union Series, with support from the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan and Sesi Lincoln of Ann Arbor, and in partnership with WRCJ-FM 90.9 and WGTE-FM 91.

Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10, is assistant editor of Michigan Alumnus.

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