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
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.