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Hurricane Christoph: Eschenbach in Philadelphia, Robin Mitchell-Boyask


In the middle of September, the much-anticipated arrival of Hurricane Isabel to the Philadelphia region proved a bit of a disappointment, with neither rains nor winds reaching anywhere near their forecast levels. About the same time, Hurricane Christoph arrived to begin his tenure as the seventh music director in the history of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and thus far he has not fizzled out, nor disappointed. Programming during his first four weeks heavy doses of music composed during this and the previous centuries, Eschenbach is thus far delivering on his promise to shake Philadelphia from its deep musical conservatism. The Sawallisch era is definitely over.

Last year’s transition period felt more unsettled to me than public and official consensus about it let on. In some ways, the guest conductors were more consistently reliable than the two music directors, featuring Osmo Vänska in a get-acquainted US tour that seemed to suggest he does not intend to stay too long in Minnesota and Christoph von Dohnanyi taking an extended victory lap around the Big Five after his tenure in Cleveland. Vänska chose a composer the Orchestra has been known to dislike in the past, Nielsen (the 3rd, so fun to hear and so unrewarding for the musicians to play!), while Dohnanyi wisely chose the Official Music of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Brahms 2nd Symphony, and produced a typically Dohnanyi rendition: crisp rhythms, alert playing from all and an astonishing sense of pacing and structural development. (Can he please return very soon?) Between the incoming and outgoing directors there were actually few weeks for guest conductors, which perhaps made it even more perplexing why Roberto Abbado continues to receive as much time from the Philadelphia Orchestra as he has. Sawallisch, as the year wound down, occasionally conducted from a stool and was bothered increasingly by problems with low blood pressure, not the first serious medical problems he has had in recent years. Indeed, while Sawallisch usually rallied during performances, something deep inside him seem to be letting go as the end of his directorship approached. Reports have him still in less than ideal condition; we wonder whether he will in fact be able to return in January to commence his position as Laureate. Aside from concern about the welfare of this incredibly decent man and wonderful musician, I think it would be helpful for the Orchestra to remain connected to the more sober, centered music-making than they experience under their very excitable new director.

Eschenbach, for his part, did less to quiet doubts about his more willful interpretations, with more herky-jerky Brahms (which he, alas, continues into this year) and a Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony that at times seemed like an athletic contest. In his first two (of six) appearances, he seemed to be pressing, conducting in such a frenetically physical manner that I sometimes wondered whether he hurt himself. And yet, there were considerable triumphs: he seems a remarkable Stravinsky conductor, with a magnificent Rite of Spring that was individual without being idiosyncratic and a romantic Symphony of Psalms that left me quite surprised and stirred. Indeed, while Eschenbach has been packaged as a forward-looking maestro steeped in the German tradition, his greatest strengths seem to lie in the French and Russian repertoires. The latter makes him more appropriate for Philadelphia, as it has, to my ears, over the decades played Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich to greater effect than any group in North America. Indeed, his greatest triumph during the transition year was a white-hot Shostakovich 5th that musicians felt was their best Carnegie Hall performance in years. By that point, Eschenbach had begun visibly to settle down and the more excessive physicality began to disappear. What will be interesting to watch and hear is whether Eschenbach, as he works consistently and regularly with a superior orchestra, grows as a conductor as did Dohnanyi did in Cleveland.

The trend has continued through the beginning of this year’s season. Eschenbach seems more centered, calmer and the Orchestra is responding with a marvelously clear and warm (their trademark) sound. French music, even modern French music, has been and will be, at the core of this season’s programming, with a stress on Messiaen, a composer Philadelphia has scandalously ignored. Last week Eschenbach, possibly rewarding his most public supporter at his controversial appointment, Principal Violist Roberto Diaz, led Berlioz’ Harold in Italy, beautifully shaped and individually characterized by both violist and conductor. This week Eschenbach launched himself into Turangalila in an utterly rapturously embodied performance, presented in an original and innovative framework. Sensitive to Messiean’s fusion of European and Asian music, Eschenbach prefaced Turangalila with a performance by a local Balinese Gamelan Orchestra. Aside from the educational value of learning about Balinese music and its influence on Messiaen, the program returned the audience’s ears and, clichés aside, Messiaen sounded suddenly more familiar and approachable. I think the experience might have also had an effect on the Philadelphia Orchestra percussion section, as their contribution to the Messiaen evoked the Gamelan style much more convincingly than in other performances I have heard (all, alas, on recordings).

Philadelphia Orchestra musicians have never been known for their enthusiastic embrace of newer music, but with their new director, the first since Stokowski to advocate modernity with a passion, enthusiastically pulling them along with him, these musicians performed Messiaen with an ardor they normally reserve for Brahms. With each section audible and coherently related to each other most of the time, Eschenbach had this huge beast tamed, barely, resulting in music that was both tense and luxuriant, the famous Philadelphia Sound being applied concisely to the mystical reveries of Olivier Messiaen.

As the final huge, glorious crescendo of Turangalila ended, the audience stood and cheered, perhaps the most remarkable event of the evening. I presume that a fair chunk of the die-hard suburban traditionalist crowd had already exchanged their subscription tickets for the next Tchaikovsky 5th, and this was thus not a typical Saturday evening crowd, but younger and more urban. But this crowd did prove to me once again that there is a more substantial audience for newer music in Philadelphia than the Orchestra management and traditional audience have believed. Whether the management is willing to endure, at some point, a slight, temporary, downturn in sales as the old audience leaves and the new audience isn’t fully there yet remains to be seen. The recent gift of $50 million (nailed down by Eschenbach himself) to the Orchestra endowment from the estate of Walter Annenberg should go a long way to smoothing that transition. Though I’m not sure that "smooth" will ever be an adjective applied to Eschenbach, nor one to which he aspires.

After next week, Eschenbach retreats to Paris for a few months, succeeded by several guest conductors, Sawallisch (we hope) and Simon Rattle’s bi-annual three-week visit. Rattle now seems to be packaged, with his consent, as part of a team with Eschenbach, as his sole North American engagement, which raises the question of why Rattle has not yet been made Principal Guest Conductor. Rattle, who allegedly turned Philadelphia down because of his reluctance to do fundraising and the social events, is leading the Orchestra in the main social event of the Philadelphia society season, the annual Academy Ball; I sometimes wonder whether Rattle has here decided to have all of the advantages of leading a top American band with none of the disadvantages. It is, by the way, Rattle’s turn to lead the Annual Performance of the Official Music of the Philadelphia Orchestra (see above). In any case, Eschenbach returns in February for more Messiaen and to launch a multi-year pursuit of the complete works of Gustav Mahler. And he leads a concert with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra (a group he manages to praise at every turn) in Schoenberg and Webern, among myriad other activities, both musical and otherwise. I can’t wait (and I never would have expected to say that three years ago). Thus begins the Eschenbach era. Blow winds, blow…



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