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S & H Interview

Christoph Eschenbach in interview with Bernard Jacobson

Two years into the Philadelphia Orchestraís residency at the cityís resplendent Kimmel Center, and just a few months into Christoph Eschenbachís tenure as music director, I talked with the maestro in his comfortable studio behind the centerís Verizon Hall. I found a man very much at ease in his new role, thanks partly to two decades of American experience: "With eleven years in Houston, and nine in Ravinia, I learned very much about the American systemĖabout how organizations like orchestras work, and the role of a music director. Itís a totally different role that he plays here than in European orchestras, which are state-, city-, or region-subsidized. And itís of course an enormous benefit for me, at the Philadelphia Orchestra, to have learned, not to be a newcomer to doing organization, not having to learn the basics and all the implications which are combined in this job. I swim actually in the same water, and Iím not scared by things, and Iím not surprised by things, not overwhelmed by things."

The "things" in question frequently include seeing and greeting, for example, a hundred sponsors at the end of a concert. "Iím absolutely used to that, and I like to speak to people. I like the idea that the music director is very much involved in fund-raisingĖexplaining to the possible donor why itís a joy to give money to the organization, and why itís a joy to support music, and why itís important for the future that music keeps this thing alive."

During his first season, Eschenbach has already begun an extended five-year festival setting all the major works of Mahler in the context of his forerunners and followers, and has also paid special attention to the music of Messiaen. Next season, the focus will be particularly on Dvorák, and also on a group of what are billed as "Great Late Works." Who and what, I wondered, might follow in the coming years?

"Well, of course, there are many things which one can focus on. Itís a little bit premature to talk about them, because we are just exploring several ideas, and also questioning these ideas, if they are really good, and how one sells them well, and how one deals with itĖourselves and also the audiences. But I like the idea that, apart from offering a variety of repertoire in all senses, once or twice in the season we focus on one theme." After next seasonís "Great Late Works," what about a concentration of "Great Early Works," such as perhaps the Shostakovich First Symphony? "Why not?" Eschenbach repliedĖ"I certainly had this idea in mind. Not next year, but I will do it certainly one year, because thatís enormously interesting. We wonít do the Shostakovich symphony, because it was just done; but if you realize, for example, that the theme of the last movement of the ĎJupiterí is already there in the first symphony of Mozart! There are pieces like Mahlerís Klagende Lied, where you hear already the quotes, or pre-quotes, from the Lied von der Erde, and the Second Symphony, the Third, and the Fourth. And your Shostakovich is an example of a genius piece, not to forget about the Beethoven First Symphony. And there are not just symphoniesĖthere are attempts, overtures, some Mozart pieces that could be included."

Asked whether any marketing pressures had helped to determine the relatively standard list of works included in next seasonís "Focus on Dvorák"Ėthe Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth symphonies are scheduled, but none of the less well known earlier onesĖthe maestro was emphatic: "No, this was purely an artistic choice. We didnít want to do too much DvorákĖwe wanted to do Dvorák, and around DvorákĖJanácek, Martinu, and others." Had there nevertheless, I asked, been any pressure from the management for the music director to draw in his horns a little bit with regard to programming unfamiliar repertoire? "No. The answer is definitely no. Next season looks a little bit more conservative than this season, but thatís not because of restrictions. On the contrary, we will continue to do new things. Itís the duty of every art institution to get the audience at least informed of what is written, what is painted, what is danced. The museums do it, the theaters do it. 80 per cent of the pieces in theaters are new pieces. 80 per cent of the pieces in musical organizations are old pieces, and we have to find a balance. Itís only a bit of a lazy tradition that new music has fallen into the background. I donít want to torture people, of course, with new music who donít want to be confronted with it. But I want at least to give them 15 minutes or 20 minutes, or ten minutes, of information on whatís being written today. And these ten minutes, even if they donít like the piece, shouldnít be considered as wasted time. Itís like, you know, reading interesting articles in newspapers, with an opinion maybe which you donít likeĖor maybe thatís not such a good example right now! Or a novel, or whatever. But yes, you have to be up to date. People may say, as youíve told me that they sometimes do, that they want to come to a concert and relax and have the nice music wash over them. But if you have, say, the Beethoven Fifth on the programĖthis is the most aggressive, uncomfortable piece ever written, in my opinion, and itís not for relaxation. And you have many of those classical pieces which are really not to relax, in which you look for a spiritual enrichment of the audience. Letís take Beethovenís Ninth SymphonyĖĎAh, wonderful, great, the Ode to JoyíĖbut before that, the first movement ends with a funeral march, and the scherzo is the wildest thing on earthĖitís hell; then thereís a divine slow movement, of course, which is very, very sophisticated. Then come these very long preparations for the Ode. So itís also a journey like in a Mahler symphony, like in a Brahms symphony, and a bit of a journey into the new land, but itís not considered as torture."

I told Eschenbach the story of what happened back in the 1980s, in the time of Riccardo Mutiís music directorship, when the concert performance of an avant-garde piece had the audience fleeing the hall in drovesĖthe avant-garde piece in question being Debussyís Pelléas et Mélisande, composed more than 80 years earlier.

"No, really? But this has I think another reason. Iím very much for concert performances of opera, but there are some which are really difficult. I find this with Pelléas et Mélisande, because it is intended to have a certain somnambulance in the language, and everything is parlando, thereís never an aria. If itís seen on stage, in a beautiful production, with all the mystery and all the images around, then it really works. But that work I would never schedule in concert." Unlike, perhaps, Gluckís Orfeo, an essentially abstract "opera of the soul," which the orchestra did in concert with great success, also in the 1980s?

"Absolutely. There are some operas I have in mind. I tell you the ones which I would certainly stay away fromĖthe Da Ponte operas by Mozart, and even ZauberflöteĖthese are just so theatrical. Nevertheless, I have done Così fan tutte in concert, two times, with very much success. On one occasion we compressed all the recitatives, and did the action with a kabuki actor; another time Alfonso, the initiator of the action, had the role of commentator." How about Die Entführung? "Thatís also a nice idea. Another one of Mozartís which works really well, which I have done, is Idomeneo. Itís one of the best."

We touched also on the subject of commissioning new works. Would this continue, and would the program be American or international? "International. Itís in the making." One per year, I wondered? "Oh, no, noĖmore. Weíll do co-commissions, so that it is not too expensiveĖand the works get more performances that way."

One question I put with some hesitation was whether Eschenbach was planning to do anything to improve what seems to me the poor quality of the orchestraís program notes these days (hesitation, because I was the annotator between 1984 and 1992, and my comment might reasonably be ascribed to sour grapes or professional jealousy). "I must admit frankly," he said, "that this is a point to which I havenít paid enough attention yet, but itís good that you tell me, because of course itís important. We have had two or three discussions about it already, to change itĖbut now comes the work, how to change it."

With regard to the orchestraís future viewed in general terms, Eschenbachís comment was: "Well, as Iíve often said, quality has no limits, perfection has always another horizon to discover. This orchestra is on the highest level an orchestra can be, so itís a question of balancing out the different registers, of also getting it still used to this hall. Iím happy with the way thatís progressing, but the acoustical team is still here, we are still working with them. [The acoustician, Russell Johnson, had said at the outset that it would take a minimum of three years to adjust the acoustics for the best possible results.] Probably with all halls itís like that. I remember the first year of the Berlin Philharmonic hall. It was a disaster, until they put in reflecting panels, and now itís one of the best halls. It takes time. With us, at this point, I think thereís so much improvement, now itís really just fine-tuning, and Iím very happy actually. This hall is so beautiful, so warm.

"The whole Kimmel Center complex, too, is very impressive." I commented that it had fundamentally changed the set-up of the cityís musical life. "Yes, and it helps the restaurants around. And not only chic restaurants, but also restaurants for young people. I see also more young people at the concerts, and we will be working now, together with our education committee, much harder to raise what I call the invisible curtain, between the stage and the audience, and to get different people into the hall. Iíll be going to more schools. I have an appointment with Settlement School [Philadelphiaís leading community music school] in March or April. Iíll be going also to the universities, to get them more interested in what we are doing, to tell them that we are open for themĖthat they shouldnít have any fear of taking that step over the line into Verizon Hall."

Was there any plan to have a composer in residence again, as the orchestra did in the 1990s? "Well, we thought about it. It has its advantages. It has also the disadvantage that one is very fixed on works by this composer, because one has to occupy him with work. And of course by now I know the international composing scene extremely well, and Iím not so dependent on advice." Did this mean that the orchestra would not be seeking a successor to Simon Woods, its artistic administrator for several years, who is leaving to become the executive director of the New Jersey Symphony? "Oh, I donít refuse the presence of an artistic administrator. Much more comes out of conversation, from the give and take of ideas, than from solitude." The artistic administratorís function, after all, is like that of a midwifeĖhis role is to facilitate the creativity of others. That, I told Eschenbach, was why, when I held a similar post with a Dutch orchestra, I adopted Shakespeareís "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men" as my motto. "Thatís wonderful," he said: "One idea stimulates the next."

It seems clear that, whatever problems it may have to cope with (and there are many in the current economic circumstances of the arts in the US), the Philadelphia Orchestra is entering on a period when there will certainly be no shortage of ideas in the house. For further insight into what the new music director has to offer, readers may like to look at his web site:


Bernard Jacobson




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