Can someone explain to me just what went wrong between the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director, Christoph Eschenbach? Late on Friday afternoon, I received a press release announcing that Eschenbach's tenure will end at the close of the 2007-08 season, after only three years on the job.
I can't say that I'm surprised, given constant rumors of the orchestra's ill will toward its leader. On September 24, the Philadelphia Inquirer went so far as to run a point-counterpoint between its two music critics, David Patrick Stearns (on the "pro" side) and Peter Dobrin (a decided "non"). Those two essays do provide much of the context and some of the atmosphere that led to this fraught relationship.
But as someone who came up in Houston and witnessed firsthand Eschenbach's miraculous transformation of the Houston Symphony, a decent regional orchestra, into a force to be reckoned with on the international stage, the failure of this particular "Philadelphia experiment" remains somewhat opaque to me.
Having heard numerous concerts by the Houston Symphony during Eschenbach's tenure, as well as revelatory evenings of Mozart and a transcendent Parsifal (staged by Robert Wilson, no less) at Houston Grand Opera, I am unshakeable in my opinion that this is a genuinely gifted, even brilliant artist. Obviously, he's a controversial one as well, given the interpretive liberties to be found in his Beethoven and Brahms readings. In this, I think Stearns is absolutely right to name Furtwängler, Stokowski and Bernstein as Eschenbach's spiritual predecessors.
I haven't always agreed with everything Eschenbach's done -- for one thing, the "Pathétique pirouette" he routinely employs to thwart premature applause between the third and fourth movements of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, while effective, seems blatantly condescending. I first witnessed this move in Houston, and saw it again a decade later in a guest appearance with the New York Philharmonic (an orchestra that rejected his candidacy in favor of Lorin Maazel, an even more willful and erratic interpreter of the standard repertoire). And Eschenbach's devotion to certain soloists, such as the pianist Tzimon Barto, is surely an inscrutable personal tic.
On the other hand, Eschenbach is among the finest living conductors of Bruckner and Mahler. A recent disc of Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 with his other ensemble, the Orchestre de Paris, made that group sound like an estimable proposition, while his latest recording, a newly issued Mahler Sixth with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is almost certainly the orchestra's best Mahler recording ever. I still recall the thrill of a Houston Symphony performance of that work, which Eschenbach conducted without a score, and I own a fine CD of the Mahler First with Houston on Koch, as well as a privately issued live recording of the Mahler Fifth recorded live with the Houston Symphony in Vienna, which earned a tumultuous response. Eschenbach is also a creditable champion of new music, having devoted attention to Christopher Rouse in Houston, Jennifer Higdon in Philadelphia and Matthias Pintscher all over the place.
So can someone help me understand more fully just why Eschenbach's tenure with one of America's heirloom ensembles went awry? Were things truly so bad? Or -- perish the thought -- is the orchestra still harboring dreams of providing Simon Rattle, the conductor it truly lusted after, with a cushy landing pad if things in Berlin continue to deteriorate?
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach - Symphonies Nos. 1-4, Cello Concerto in A* - Alison McGillivray*, The English Concert/Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi)
Robert Schumann - Piano Concerto*; Clara Schumann - Two Rückert Lieder; Am Strande**; Johannes Brahms - Cello Sonata in E minor***; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 - Helene Grimaud, Anne-Sofie von Otter**, Truls Mørk***, Staatskapelle Dresden/Esa-Pekka Salonen* (Deutsche Grammophon)
Maurice Ravel - Daphnis et Chloé - Choir and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung (Deutsche Grammophon)
King Crimson - Riverside Theatre, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, March 8, 1972 (DGMLive! download)
Herbert Janssen - Lebendige Vergangenheit (Preiser)
Anny Konetzni - Lebendige Vergangenheit (Preiser)
Hilde Konetzni - Lebendige Vergangenheit (Preiser)