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The Eschenbach Era: Music in Philadelphia, by Bernard Jacobson


Extreme weather patterns can have salubrious effects. The man my colleague Robin Mitchell- Boyask has dubbed "Hurricane Christoph" has blown through town in his first month as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra; and it is already clear that music in Philadelphia will not be the same again, at least for the foreseeable future.

I am in full agreement with the general enthusiasm expressed in the local press over Eschenbach’s galvanizing effect on orchestra, audience, and city alike. But when my colleagues suggest that he is likely to be most convincing in contemporary and unconventional repertoire (such as the healthy dose of Messiaen he is offering in his first season), whereas in Brahms and other composers central to the Austro-German symphonic tradition he may suffer by comparison with his predecessor Wolfgang Sawallisch, I take a sharply different view. What Mr. Mitchell- Boyask characterizes as "willful" and "herky-jerky" Brahms (nice word!), I hear as a welcome return to such crucial values of lively performance as imagination, flexibility, and the indispensable willingness to take interpretative risks.

Certainly, helped by his brilliant notion of prefacing it with a first half played by a local gamelan ensemble, Eschenbach’s Turangalîla was a dazzling hit with the audience, and works like Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, Berg’s Violin Concerto, Messiaen’s L’Ascension, and the commissioned piece by local composer Gerald Levinson that opened the subscription season have all contributed to the sense of adventure that has blessedly returned to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. Yet it was perhaps the performance of Mozart’s "Jupiter" Symphony that concluded Eschenbach’s first four-week stint that will remain longest and most satisfyingly in my ears. Like the Brahms First on his opening program, it was an object-lesson in allowing a work to develop at its natural pace, in profoundly sensitive response to the harmonic pulse of the music. At the same time, as used to be the case with such great forerunners on the podium as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Jascha Horenstein, this "going with the flow," so far from having a disjointed effect, ended by realizing the work’s architectural integrity far more convincingly than any strait-jacketed adherence to an unvarying pulse, in what is commonly thought of as the Toscanini-Szell tradition, could do. A fundamental factor in the symphonic style, after all, is its combination, or reconciling, of variety with unity, so that the art of transition lies at the heart of both composition and conducting. Anyone – well, almost anyone – can give us a tune, and then go on to give us another one. What takes something like genius is to imbue each idea with its full unique character and also to lead us with inevitability from one idea to the next.

It may be early days to be using a word like "genius" to describe what Eschenbach has demonstrated these last few weeks. Much water must flow under many bridges before his success in this cruelly demanding post can be confirmed, and musical talent is a notoriously difficult quality to evaluate. But I think it is worth emphasizing, at the very least, that he is making his impact as much through his gifts as the interpreter of a wide range of repertoire – not just the novelties and the block-busters – as through the many fresh and imaginative initiatives he has come up with in the effort to bring an orchestra sometimes seen as aloof and hidebound more vitally in touch with its audience and the wider community.

One such idea was to have the opening-night gala concert shown on a big television screen in front of the hall for the benefit of those unable to buy – maybe to afford – tickets. Then there is the simple yet astonishingly effective touch best described in Eschenbach’s own words, in one of the direct and charming bulletins he has taken to sending the press: "I have asked the Orchestra to face the audience when they stand for applause" (contrary to the convention that has the string-players facing the conductor’s podium), "because people will be happy to see their faces and give them their appreciation." Eschenbach has gone out already into several city neighborhoods to talk with people whose lives have hitherto not been touched by the Philadelphia Orchestra. As a pianist, he is taking an even more active part in the orchestra’s chamber-music series than Sawallisch did, beginning with a stunning performance, partnered by Tzimon Barto, of Messiaen’s two-piano Visions de l’Amen; and he is introducing, after several orchestral programs, the concept of "postlude" recitals that he pioneered in his previous post at the head of the Chicago Symphony’s summer season at the Ravinia Festival. With all this, any unfamiliar or especially challenging repertoire finds the music director coming on stage at the start of the evening, microphone in hand, to talk to the audience in the most natural and unpretentious way about what it may expect to experience.

The feeling, thus, is that a new spirit of animation has taken hold of this great and venerable institution. And the evident fact that the animating is being done by the music director himself and not just through him by some administrator, no matter how enterprising, is of inestimable value.

Still, being myself a somewhat hidebound person when it comes to musical presentation, I shall end by turning from such popular, even populist, initiatives back to the subject of that wonderful "Jupiter" performance. The superb playing of the famous orchestra was just a part of this triumph. We heard subtle phrasing and beautiful tone from the woodwinds, crispness and refinement from the brass, supremely stylish elegance from timpanist Don Liuzzi. The feather-light articulation of the celebrated strings, who can always command opulence but not always such delicacy, seemed next to miraculous under the baton of a music director only four weeks into his tenure. And these elements could be enjoyed in the framework of an exceptionally intelligent and coherent conductorial conception of both the expressive detail and the broad structural arch of Mozart’s last symphony. All the new approaches to the public are welcome, and urgently needed. The musical acumen is deeply rewarding to the listener. That we now seem to have both together is a circumstance on which the Philadelphia Orchestra management must be justly congratulating itself, and at which Philadelphians–and music-lovers at large–may rejoice.

©Bernard Jacobson


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