Orchestra has some lessons to consider

Posted: October 29, 2006

So here are the lessons learned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the wily pursuit of music directors and other acts of senseless hope:

You can't impose love on a loveless marriage.

If you hire a 70-year-old music director, you might want to work quickly to find his successor.

And if your orchestra is not in perpetual music-director search mode, you're living dangerously.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's future would be clearer had its immediate past leadership really understood all this six years ago before Christoph Eschenbach was named, 13 years ago when Wolfgang Sawallisch started the job, and at every point since Eugene Ormandy faded from the scene. But it didn't, Eschenbach has given notice, and now the orchestra is once again looking for (any?) port in a storm.

Eschenbach will depart at the end of next season, making his music-director tenure this orchestra's shortest since Carl Pohlig left in 1912 after five seasons.

The good news is that the orchestra's leaders - if president James Undercofler's early idealism survives this process - seem to understand the importance of making music the reason to hire a conductor.

But whether Undercofler really has time to wait for maestro love to materialize, or whether the orchestra will be forced to come up with an interim leadership plan (such as a shared podium), remains to be seen.

Since Philadelphia is one of those places where gracious exits and keeping up appearances are part of the civic fiber, I won't dwell on the past here. But let me quote from something I wrote in March 2001 that might be an important reminder about how we got to this dangerous place:

It hit many musicians like the dull thud of pragmatism, this decision in January to hire Eschenbach as the orchestra's seventh music director, starting in September 2003. At a meeting announcing the decision, players responded with silence. No applause, no excited stamping of feet. Silence. And then the resentment poured forth.

One musician used the word "underwhelmed." Another said he felt "betrayed." . . .

What a way to usher in new musical leadership.

Is it any wonder things haven't worked out? Whatever you want to claim about musicians' being involved on the search committee, you cannot say that Eschenbach was hired for any chemistry he had with the orchestra. He had not conducted the orchestra for 4 1/2 years, and was never a favorite guest conductor.

Musicians found the out-of-the-blue decision especially stinging because management had for several years been using terms such as "institutional cohesiveness," "musician involvement," and "consensus." And here was a new music director - after all, the biggest artistic decision an orchestra can make - for whom there was no discernible mandate from the artists.

Not long after Eschenbach's bumpy tenure began, an orchestra board member gave me her depressing perspective, which I hope was not an official board position. The orchestra might never again have a music director as great as Sawallisch, she said - I should get over it.

How's that for institutional ambition? Can such an idea possibly be consistent with the desire to be a great orchestra?

Still, the Philadelphia Orchestra seems remarkably firm in its aim to remain one of the world's top purveyors of one of civilization's greatest achievements. All it needs now is a music director who shares that ambition, and a process for getting him or her in place.

Waiting for chemistry could take years, but the orchestra really has no choice if it remains committed to the idea of musical quality as the criterion. No one can afford another arranged marriage. Too much is at stake, and some critics believe that the orchestra is already injured.

So where was the planning for a successor, however far down the road? It's not as if history didn't have worthy lessons. When Sawallisch was named, he had a relationship with the orchestra going back to the 1960s. When Riccardo Muti became music director, it was a promotion from principal guest conductor.

At the moment, the orchestra has that kind of closeness with no conductors except perhaps Simon Rattle and Charles Dutoit. That's an awfully short list.

Why should a slowly cultivated relationship be the way to a new leader? Isn't it the job of musicians (well-paid ones, I might add) to play wonderfully no matter who is on the podium? None of the rest of us gets to choose our bosses, so why should they?

If only it were that simple. Music-making is not accounting or hospital administration. Its success depends entirely on love - even if it is love by way of fear and respect, as it was with Sawallisch. Chemistry counts. The notes on the page are only the beginning. Meaningful interpretation develops somewhere in the air between the podium and the orchestra risers.

If the orchestra makes musical rapport the criterion for music director, that leaves behind a long list of qualities the next search committee should not concern itself with. Please, let's not begin that ridiculous chant about hiring an American, or insisting that the conductor "live" in Philadelphia (no matter how loosely you define that).

He or she need not be friendly to audiences. Many orchestra fans seem pained that Eschenbach does not smile enough, a complaint that's nonsense as far as I'm concerned. If a music director conducts a wonderful Brahms symphony, storms off the podium, and slams the stage door behind him, that's good enough for me. I got what I came for.

A fund-raiser? An "innovator" (one of the marketing tags attached to Eschenbach)? A musical ambassador? It's nice if you can get it. But a great personality off the podium does not always come with a great personality on.

While the orchestra writes a job description, no one should lose focus on Eschenbach's remaining year and a half, not least because the ensemble's health depends on it. The orchestra and Eschenbach have American and European tours to get through together and several recordings to make. Everyone who encounters this partnership in the next couple of years will be listening for problems, and it's in no one's best interest to make them apparent.

Maybe now that the Eschenbach era is about to end it can really begin. If he's smart, Eschenbach will eschew the vulgarities that are a hallmark of his style and begin to listen for the orchestra before him and respond to its characteristic expressiveness and refined sound. If the orchestra is fair-minded, it will walk onstage expecting nothing less than spectacular performances like those in Carnegie Hall and at Tanglewood.

It's not impossible. But I doubt that the let's-just-be-friends phase will be all that fruitful.

More likely, Eschenbach's tenure will end the way it began, with a certain amount of musical chaos and an occasional magical performance to further prove that great chemistry is one thing you still can't buy on demand.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.

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