S&H Concert  overview

Philadelphia Orchestra Events : January-May 2001 (R M-B)

The Philadelphia Orchestra's 2000-1 season is now history, and what a strange season it has been; strange because of the combination of pre-new-hall torpor, mind-numbingly conservative programming, post-director-search anger and an often astonishingly high level of playing - or at least high when Sawallisch was in the house. Indeed, the season might as well have been titled "Waiting for Sawallisch," for the parade of guest conductors during his absences almost uniformly failed to approach Sawallisch's magic with this group of musicians. I shall briefly summarize the season's second half since January 1, and then try to make sense of the appointment of Christoph Eschenbach as Sawallisch's successor.

The quality control problems likely stemmed from a surplus of part-time conductors on the schedule; when conductors of adequate technical talent led the Orchestra, it sounded healthy, but, otherwise, there were too many floppy batons, often from pianists standing on the podium. The first concerts of the new year touched on the succession as poor David Robertson, who had been a candidate himself, suffered the indignity of taking the Philadelphians to Carnegie Hall - on the very day of the Eschenbach announcement -- in a program of largely French music that seemed better received in New York than in Philadelphia. Given that the search had taken several years, the PO management might have been able at least to wait until Robertson left town before opening the surprise package! Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos then returned after a long absence and delighted the old guard for two weeks with splendid renditions of pieces that need sabbaticals (Respighi's Pines, the Beethoven 7th). Two weeks of cruise-control programming, but at least standards were high. Sawallisch then returned for three weeks of concerts, including a Missa Solemnis that, while lovely, didn't seem to clear up nagging doubts about the work's nature and a Brahms 4th for the ages. Brahms is certainly one composer where Sawallisch's new-found intensity has brought concerts of memorable music-making; Brahms performances with a constant sense of discovery led by an old master unafraid to take chances with works he has studied for half a century.

And then the pianists picked up the baton. Two weeks of Vladimir Ashkenazy straddling the end of February and beginning of March brought more French music and then one of the most unpleasant Brahms 2nd piano concertos I've heard. At least Emmanuel Ax offered something from the piano; the orchestra sounded lost. After a week with Robert Spano, a conductor yet not exactly one with razor sharp technique, Andras Schiff arrived to conduct Beethoven's Emperor from the piano. Had Schiff's turn been an isolated phenomenon, those concerts would have been more absolutely compelling, but the Orchestra spent too long a period working with directors of unsure beats and the ensemble slipped noticeably. Some improvement occurred when two local favorites returned. Sir Andrew Davis offered a rare opportunity to hear the Tippet 4th played by a first-rate string section, followed by David Zinman's introduction of Arcadi Volodos to Philadelphia in a performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor that seemed to most listeners less than compelling, especially in view of the enormous hype surrounding the pianist's debut. One interesting side-show during these two weeks was the audible grumbling among audience members that Davis and Zinman were not taken more seriously during the director's search. Davis, for one, invariably leads thoughtfully programmed and enjoyable concerts, but does not get the Philadelphia Orchestra to play at its highest level. Whatever musical restoration the professional Zinman effected unwound rapidly when the well-meaning but amateur Bobby McFerrin (and, to the astonishment of many, in a regular subscription concert) in one of those concerts that are supposed to attract new audiences. McFerrin led a Pops type program (i.e. the Tchaikovsky Serenade was the heaviest piece) and led the audience in singing tunes from television shows (I am not making this up!)

Sawallisch's much-needed return was prefaced in the middle of April by the second appearance of Yakov Kreizberg at the Academy of Music. I had heard the musicians did not warm to Kreizberg at his first turn here (the PO has turned into Turandot when it comes to young conductors trying to woo it), and the players remained noticeably detached during the Mozart D minor concerto, played by an overly reticent Angela Hewitt and accompanied some fussy, excessive baton-waving from Kreizberg. The Mahler 1st then began in a fairly pedestrian matter, though I was struck by the transparency of the sound, even during climaxes (no mean feat in the Academy of Music). Suddenly, though, musicians and conductor clicked at the end of the first movement like Tristan and Isolde after the Liebestrank and the rest was utterly splendid. I don't think I've previously heard Mahler's directions followed so scrupulously in a concert. For the first time since Sawallisch left town, this was a great orchestra again.

The Maestro himself then returned in late April to close out the season. First came a rare performance of the complete Má vlast. Sawallisch who has opened the Prague Festival several times with Smetana's cycle, clearly loves the piece and approached it, predictably, with a more symphonically Teutonic style that worked surprisingly well. Má vlast felt much less like a sequence of independent tone poems but showed itself more a cohesive work of often high drama. Another concert was diminished by the cancellation of Renée Fleming who had been slated to sing the Four Last Songs with this great Strauss conductor. Her replacement, Pamela Coburn, tried hard, but Sawallisch himself seemed out of sorts. One can only guess that even he was disappointed, as he returned after intermission for an utterly electrifying Bruckner 4th, a performance that bore little resemblance to that fairly placid recording (in horrible sound) he made for EMI early in his tenure. Clearly reveling in the brass sections he has rebuilt since 1993, Sawallisch led a propulsive, dramatic performance in which every section of the orchestra moved in utter unanimity. The viola section in particular played with a sense of ecstasy. This was Bruckner that will stay with me for a long time. I must confess that circumstances unfortunately kept me from hearing in any form the last two weeks of the season, when the Curtis Institute Wunderkind Lang Lang debuted with the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, followed in the last concert by the next phase of Sawallisch's growing interest in Elgar, the Violin Concerto with Franz Peter Zimmermann (yes, an all-German Elgar!). Sawallisch, incidentally, will lead off next season with the Enigma Variations (the second consecutive year he has programmed this Elgar). Throughout these weeks, I was struck by the extraordinary demonstrably physical effect Sawallisch has on his orchestra. The players dance in their seats as they play, and clearly dig down for that extra effort. The chemistry among them and their love and reverence for their leader is palpable. Watching and listening to this combination for the past three years in particular has been one of the great joys in my quarter century of concert-going. This will be an extraordinarily tough act to follow.

But life does go on and we now have a successor. To the surprise and astonishment of many observers, on January 9th Christoph Eschenbach was announced to succeed Sawallisch. Readers might remember my incredulity to the first Eschenbach rumor in my November report. Sawallisch himself said in November that there was no front runner. Then, in January, we learned that negotiations with Eschenbach had been in progress for months. Surprise greeted the announcement because Eschenbach had not set foot in Philadelphia since 1995 and his work before then here had not been impressive. But the players had shot down every other contender, New York and Boston seemed poised to strike, and a decision, any decision, had to be made. Eschenbach seemed the best available candidate of his generation. If the community was surprised, the players were angry. Reports appeared that the musicians greeted the announcement to them with dead silence, followed by complaints. Consider that 1/3 of the orchestra, including its concert master, have never played with Eschenbach, and it is no wonder they feel very uneasy. One also has the clear sense that Philadelphia was not Eschenbach's choice either, as he had craved Cleveland the previous year and then made a big push for New York, only accepting Philadelphia when Maazel won that post. Philadelphians who can read also see that Eschenbach consented to squeeze Philadelphia into his schedule next year for a single week, while spending two weeks with the New York Philharmonic, an extended run with the Metropolitan Opera and engagements at Carnegie with one of his other orchestras. I guess Eschenbach's lucky the director of the Philadelphia Orchestra leads more concerts at Carnegie Hall than any other conductor (the PO has an extensive series there), for he clearly loves New York. Philadelphians are also still waiting to see which of Eschenbach's three other orchestral posts he will drop.

So it is a controversial appointment, but not one without clear positives. Eschenbach's track record as an orchestra builder in Houston is impressive, and reports from Paris are very encouraging. The PO management has claimed Eschenbach is a late bloomer and has improved since 1995. Maybe management is right. Philadelphia needs a conductor committed to new music, and that is one of Eschenbach's strengths. Eschenbach has signaled that he wants Sawallisch around as much as possible, which should provide a stabilizing counterweight to Eschenbach's more volatile music-making, so it is clear Eschenbach is not afraid of having a strong roster of conductors.

But orchestra-conductor chemistry is an utterly indefinable and mysterious bird and Eschenbach enters with no relationship with the orchestra's musicians. If the players (some of whom enjoy talking to the press) decide they do not like him, the situation could turn ugly, especially as the management has decided to keep the younger contenders on the roster for next season. With Rattle hanging around to remind the players of what might have been, Eschenbach has to be at the top of his game. It will certainly be interesting. Eschenbach gets a new orchestra hall and a Sawallisch-trained orchestra. If he performs as hoped, and marries his more spontaneous style of music-making with the orchestra's discipline, the results could be extraordinary to hear. Many here want this succession to work and are keeping an open mind, but Eschenbach has to become more aware that he is sending mixed signals to the groups that support the most important position he will ever hold.

Robin Mitchell-Boyask

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