Leopold Stokowski was among the most important and influential conductors of the 20th century -- famed for the richly seductive sound of his ensembles, he was also a tireless promoter of new music, premiering key works from composers including Mahler, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. Born April 18, 1882 in London, Stokowski later studied at the Paris Conservatory, and upon relocating to the U.S. in 1905 signed on as organist and choirmaster at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City. Four years later he began his conducting career with the Cincinnati Symphony, and in 1912 he accepted the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra and transformed it into one of the most celebrated ensembles in the world.
In 1917 the orchestra made its first recording, Brahms' Hungarian Dance #5; in the decades that followed, Stokowski made over 700 records, among them the score to Walt Disney's 1940 masterpiece Fantasia (in which he also appeared). He also introduced over 400 new compositions in either world or U.S. premieres; among the most notable were performances of Mahler's Symphony #8, Prokofiev's Symphony #6, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #4, Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, and Vaughan Williams' Symphony #9. Additionally, Stokowski was a pivotal force in popularizing the music of Bach, although his transcriptions were often highly controversial.
Although Stokowski exited from full-time duties in Philadelphia in 1936, he conducted part of each season for several years thereafter; he founded the All-American Youth Orchestra in 1940, and between 1942 and 1943 co-conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra alongside the legendary Arturo Toscanini. Although in later years he refused long-term conducting projects, he enjoyed brief tenures with many of the world's most famous ensembles, and in 1962 also founded New York's American Symphony Orchestra, a group for aspiring young talent. After cutting his final recordings in May 1977, Stokowski died on September 13 of that year; he was 95 years old. ~ Jason Ankeny