A decision is expected in October, Undercofler said, adding that putting it off until then was the conductor's suggestion.
It's the first big item on the agenda for Undercofler, 60, who took over as orchestra president this month and embarked on his first tour just three weeks into the job. He has been preparing grant applications, sorting through newspaper clips to catch up on orchestra history, parsing the musicians' labor agreement (which expires in a year), and interviewing prospective staff members.
But he started out by tackling head-on one of the biggest issues for any orchestra.
"My first day on the job I flew to Amsterdam to meet with Eschenbach to talk about his relationship with the orchestra and the orchestra's relationship with him."
Though about to start his fourth season as music director, Eschenbach has not achieved a fully functional rapport with the ensemble. Some concerts - most notably in Carnegie Hall and a single afternoon at Tanglewood - have yielded triumphs. But more often, musicians leave concerts frustrated and angry. They have consistently complained about his wobbly tempos, peculiar interpretations, and disorganized rehearsals.
Asked whether Eschenbach and the orchestra could still jell, Undercofler said: "I wish I had an answer."
Eschenbach, asked about the postponement of discussions over his contract extension, said through a spokeswoman: "I am very much looking forward to a partnership with James Undercofler. However, he has only just begun the job in August, just before we left on this tour, and we both agree that we need a bit of time to get to know one another to make these discussions productive."
Undercofler says Eschenbach still embraces the ambassador part of his job. He has been a particularly willing participant in fund-raising calls. "The other night, I was dragging him from one reception to the other, and he was absolutely charming."
He says he is grateful for Eschenbach's recognition of a part of the job that some other conductors dread or even refuse to do. But, regarding what's needed in a music director, he says: "When you get down to it, it's about the artistic."
For a man who has never run an orchestra before, Undercofler, who was previously head of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., already seems to have a bead on the important issues that come with the job. "It's artistic, financial and development. What else is there?"
A good deal more, as he well knows. Undercofler, whose personal style disarms with its sincerity, lack of pretentiousness, and glints of soft-spoken sweetness, plans to delegate much of the day-to-day operations, such as the logistics of touring. He'll depend on a staff that includes Elizabeth Warshawer, who was most recently the orchestra's interim executive director and is now its chief operating officer.
He will be directly involved with labor talks, sitting at the negotiating table, but will grapple with what he calls "ber-issues," such as increasing earned revenue and developing new audiences.
Some of these issues are directly tied to the labor agreement. Sunday concerts, for instance, were not allowed in the musicians' old contract. Now a few are, and they and other nontraditional concert times, formats and venues are clearly audience-development vehicles with promise.
Last season, not even five years after opening its new hall in the Kimmel Center to a capacity crowd all season, the orchestra's audience fell to 89 percent of capacity. Subscriptions for the coming season are just below where they were at this time last year, Undercofler said, leading the orchestra to think that it is offering too much "product" in Verizon Hall itself.
"We have audiences outside of downtown Philadelphia. What if , we did three concerts in the Kimmel and one in Wilmington, Reading or Trenton?"
Undercofler points to the popularity of Sunday concerts and of Access concerts (designed for the classical newbie), and wonders how the orchestral experience can be better tailored to audiences with varying degrees of musical knowledge.
"I would like to explore other formats. I'm concerned about the pairing of new works with warhorses . I think it's something that needs to be looked at."
The way Undercofler sees it, orchestra listeners basically fit into one of four categories: the Access ticket buyer, who knows only enough about classical music to know that he wants to know more; the top-40-repertoire enthusiast, who wants to hear only the most tried and true works; the "core expanded" listener, who not only knows, say, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 but also No. 4; and the connoisseur.
By integrating the orchestra's marketing and education efforts, he wonders, "could you actually mature an audience over time?"
While talking about the regional potential, Undercofler says he is mindful of the international constituency that has been a big part of the orchestra's life for decades - listeners such as the ones hearing it now on its two-week European festivals tour. "Clearly we have an international audience, and it is critical that we nurture that audience, with touring, electronic media, commissioning, guest soloists and conductors. I think you can maintain the highest artistic quality and play [regionally] outside the Kimmel Center. It's really an issue of who's on stage."
In looking at who will follow Eschenbach, whether it's sooner or later, Undercofler acknowledges that the orchestra's list of conductors with whom it has a deep relationship is quite small. The orchestra once worked closely with several guest conductors simultaneously (such as Riccardo Chailly, Franz Welser-Mst and Christian Thielemann), recording with some, and hosting them at home for engagements of several weeks at a time. Now conductors mostly come in for two weeks at most, limiting the ability to forge deeper ties that might reveal an Eschenbach successor.
Undercofler says he's working with artistic administrator Kathleen van Bergen to expand the roster, but at the moment, the list is short and the relationships are green.
"There's Simon Rattle," Undercofler says, "but I don't think he wants to be music director in a traditional American orchestra."
One possibility, he says, is a restructuring of the music-director job, so that musicians would take more responsibility for some artistic decisions, such as auditions and tenure issues.
That, he said, "would open up a number of conductors as possibilities" for music director.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin
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For Eschenbach, a rousing reception in Hamburg. Review, D5.