Exit, Eschenbach: The early promise unfulfilled

Posted: May 18, 2008

He came in with the almost poetic wish for the orchestra to "reach every child in Philadelphia."

Early in his tenure, the trim maestro in a Nehru outfit had a plan for players to echo his modern informality by casting away their stuffy white-tie-and-tails and black dresses.

Even detractors said that a Christoph Eschenbach era at the Philadelphia Orchestra would at least mean having luminous soprano Renée Fleming around a lot, because she and the conductor had apparently forged a close bond.

"You'll learn to like him," one search-committee musician said to his colleagues after the appointment was met by stunned silence.

Liking him turned out not to be the problem. On a personal level, just about everyone liked him. Contrary to the glowering posed shots sent out by the orchestra's public relations staff, Eschenbach is by all accounts an unusually warm person.

But players didn't want a friend. They wanted someone to respect, maybe even fear, a musical father figure who would cultivate their expressive, lush sound while expanding the repertoire and interpretive possibilities.

Only in the latter area did they get what they wanted, and it wasn't exactly a meeting of the minds or hearts.

With no political capital, the plan for informal concert dress evaporated. Reaching every child in Philadelphia remains an unrealized goal. Fleming materialized only once.

In Eschenbach's off-the-podium duties, the orchestra's administrative staff - which has since turned over - got the kind of cooperative employee they wanted. He was agreeable, a team player. And he was charming at fund-raising appearances, whether in Philadelphia, Rancho Mirage or Palm Beach. He was not autocratic, not tyrannical, which surprised outsiders. Quite the opposite: He generally deferred to musicians' opinions in auditions and personnel matters.

This was not a case of an orchestra divorcing a conductor for reasons of cruelty, but of a partnership riven by musical philosophy - the full extent of which was perfectly clear in guest-conducting stints well before anyone considered Eschenbach music-director material. In that regard, any agent of disservice would be the orchestra's board for not recognizing seeds of failure present long ago.

The administration - again, the previous one - argued that what Eschenbach did bring to the table were new ideas, or at least the willingness to go along with them. But let's go down the list of innovations it claims for Eschenbach.

Postlude concerts were an Eschenbach add-on, as was the convention of having the orchestra face the audience directly to accept applause (rather than staring down at their music stands).

Video screens at concerts? Wolfgang Sawallisch era.

Composers or conductors talking from the stage? Sawallisch.

Concerts over the Internet? Sawallisch - in 1997 no less, when he presided over the first live concert by a major orchestra on the Internet.

Eschenbach is often perceived as forward-thinking on repertoire, but the numbers don't indicate that he was much more progressive than Sawallisch. The Sawallisch decade produced 34 works given their world or U.S. premieres by the Philadelphia Orchestra - with Sawallisch on the podium for new works by Rochberg, Rihm, Rautavaara, Penderecki, Higdon and others. Eschenbach's half-decade produced 20 works given their world or U.S. premieres.

In new music, the difference (adjusted for numbers of years in their tenures) is statistically insignificant, especially given the fact that Sawallisch's time here coincided with chronic financial ills that made chance-taking harder to consider, and at a moment when every spare penny went to build the new concert hall.

What Eschenbach's handlers did was put all those initiatives under one umbrella, give it a name - "Raise the Invisible Curtain" - and grow the concept.

As for invisible curtains, whether Eschenbach in the end transmitted an image for the orchestra that was any more or less accessible than his predecessor did is unclear.

He never led the orchestra at the Mann in his five years; Sawallisch did, four times, most stirringly in a 9/11 benefit.

The orchestra's free neighborhood concerts and shorter-format Access concerts were started under Sawallisch.

It was on the watch of the old German kapellmeister that the orchestra launched ClassiX Live - a four-concert package and social club aimed at getting Generation X hipsters in the door.

But Sawallisch's most critical contribution in his decade was musical. He raised the standard of playing. With orchestras around the globe sounding more and more like one another (with Curtis Institute graduates playing in the Berlin Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw, how could they not?), Sawallisch brought back the unique and fabled Philadelphia sound - a depth and vibrancy to the strings.

Eschenbach seemed indifferent to the orchestra's unusual grasp of sound as an expressive tool, and his flexible tempo approach thrilled some critics and angered others.

So what was his legacy?

I don't think the ensemble's cohesiveness or core personality has been damaged, but it did come precariously close to musical anarchy at times. Charles Dutoit arrives with a sound ideal already in his ear as well as a new title in the fall, and not a moment too soon.

The most hopeful consequence of Eschenbach's five years is the orchestra's increasing comfort in taking matters into its own hands - that is, for players to depend less on the conductor and more on listening to one another. I've often felt that success in Verizon Hall would have struck more often if the players could hear one another better on stage. The partnership has sometimes glowed in Carnegie Hall.

And musicians now have, I think, a greater awareness of the value in the international marketplace of a trademark sound, even if some of the newer players have not yet had a chance to realize everything that means.

What about Eschenbach's future? He is slated to lead two tours, and is expected back as a guest conductor. Will he have a title? Both Sawallisch and Riccardo Muti were honored with laureate titles after they stepped down. But orchestra president James Undercofler will say only that "discussions of a title are under way."

Why would the orchestra want a coda to the Eschenbach era? A key member of the orchestra's board told me that a continued relationship was being sought (a) because Eschenbach, he said, is a great conductor, and (b) to show the world that the orchestra did not make a mistake in appointing him music director.

Saving face is a reckless strategy - whether in hiring a guest conductor or in naming a laureate. If the orchestra's artistic will has indeed been girded by the last five years, the leadership should now see more clearly than ever that a willingness to raise money and get out into the community are all fine and good - but in the end, it's the music that always has the last word.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.

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