Philadelphia Orchestra at de Sales

Michael Murray and Philadelphia Orchestra at St. Francis de Sales, Feb 1980 (PAHRC)

Did you know we were digital sound pioneers? On February 1, 1980, Michael Murray and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy recorded the Saint Saens Symphony No. 3 in C in our church – with recording company Telarc using then new Soundstream technology to capture the sound.

Michael Murray, the organist, recalls  that “a few months prior to the recording, the Telarc folks and I visited half a dozen churches in the Philadelphia area to try out organs, before settling on the St. Francis de Sales instrument.”

Fran Byers writes that the recording took a lot of preparation:  Bruce Schultz “had to ‘re-pitch’ the whole organ to conform with Maestro Eugene Ormandy’s pitch for the orchestra in order to make the sound ‘brighter.’ The organ was originally set to 435 pitch since 1911, which is flat compared with 440 (modern) and Ormandy wanted 442, to make the sound brighter. Every pipe had to be tuned or cut to make its pitch sharper. The organ is still at that pitch. All 6,000-plus pipes had to be physically cut after being taken out of position. It was quite a project. Also, the pitch of the organ is heavily dependent on the weather. The hotter the temperature, the sharper the organ’s sound. In winter, the pitch can go below 440, which makes it flatter than standard pitch.   It took about a week to prepare the organ, with round-the-clock work.”

Father Leo Oswald later recollected that “it was freezing cold, so space heaters were brought in… There was too much reverberation, so the area was draped…” Fran remembers “26 pews were taken out, 13 on each side of the middle aisle…The sound engineer and his equipment were in the lower church. They closed off the neighboring streets.  At one point, there was a siren outside, which had to be cut off.”

“Only a small handful of us were allowed in the church to observe and hear the recording, “ Fran recalls, “We sat in front of the St. Joseph altar. I recall Sister Carmella being there, as well as Dr. Harry Wilkinson and Father Oswald,” and Bruce was with the orchestra.

Years later, Michael Murray remembers that “several orchestra members mentioned really enjoying making music in those reverberant acoustics. The players were accustomed to the rather dry acoustics of the Academy of Music.”  Reviewers still note that the innovative recording exemplifies the best of Ormandy’s “Philadelphia Orchestra Sound.”

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