Financial Times

May 4, 2002

Old world expert on the new

By Andrew Clark

The Philadelphia Orchestra's new chief conductor is determined to shake things up – and that includes the famous "Philadelphia Sound". Andrew Clark hopes for a glimpse of the sparkle behind his sober front.

When Christoph Eschenbach next appears in Philadelphia, he will join forces with Wolfgang Sawallisch for a performance of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. Their two concerts in October promise an unusual show of unity by a departing music director and his chosen successor. Sawallisch, 78, will conduct. Eschenbach, 62, will play the solo part. The Philadelphia Orchestra's subscribers will applaud. This is surely the smoothest handover any marketing department could have dreamed up. Like Sawallisch, who has spent 10 solid but hardly earth-shattering years in Philadelphia, Eschenbach has the sort of pedigree American music lovers find reassuring. He represents German tradition, he oozes experience, he has the great composers at his finger-tips. Here is the perfect man to preserve the Philadelphia orchestra's heritage, rooted in 19th-century-music. The sign outside the Kimmel Center, the orchestra's new hall on Broad Street, seems to read "no change".
If Philadelphians study the small print, however, they are in for a surprise. Eschenbach, who formally takes up his post next year, is committed to new music – not just user-friendly American composers, but the uncompromising world of the European avant-garde. He says audiences will be "a little bit shocked" by what he has prepared for Philadelphia next season, with a new work in each of the five programmes he will conduct.
He is also determined to shake up the orchestra's conservative image. That includes overhauling the famous "Philadelphia sound" – making it less uniform, more versatile. "The orchestra's identity will change," he proclaims matter-of-factly. "The impetus comes also from the musicians: the younger ones think of themselves as belonging to the 21st century. They have a sparkling new hall with all the possibilities for new media, and they're eager to have a mix of their tradition, using the sound they have developed for that, and the new, for which they have to develop a different quality."
All this suggests the opposite of a traditionalist – something the Philadelphia board appears to have been quietly aware of when it appointed him last year. "I'm not interested in looking back," says Eschenbach. "There is experience in what I have lived, but if you are analytically aware of your experiences, they make you more progressive, because you want to build them into new ideas. This is where I find myself. In my old age (laughs), I feel very young. If I felt settled, I would be unhappy."
Eschenbach differs from the vast majority of European music directors of American orchestras, in that he didn't come to the US to trade on his laurels and Old World breeding. He doesn't conduct new music from a burdensome sense of obligation, in the manner of Sawallisch or Kurt Masur. He is genuinely enthusiastic about Christopher Rouse, Augusta Read Thomas, Matthias Pintscher, Wolfgang Rihm, Marc-Andre Dalbavie, Peter Lieberson, all of whom he has championed on both sides of the Atlantic. Eschenbach puts the same intensity into their scores as he does to Beethoven and Brahms.
Composers often speak of his capacity to absorb their music very fast and very deeply, of his exceptional ability to adapt to different styles, but with the same underlying artistic impulse. An Eschenbach performance, of old music or new, has the sort of precision American orchestras expect – matched to a lot of expression, which is his German inheritance.
Just don't be distracted by the platform manner, a curious mix of sober and the flamboyant. With his shaven head, black collarless tunic and uninhibited body language, Eschenbach's appearance suggests a mad monk crossed with a fashion designer. Musicians have been known to laugh at his mannerisms: the hardened ranks of the New York Philharmonic, for example, are not his natural soul-mates. But he clicks with young people, and seems the right person to energise the Philadelphia Orchestra, at a time when American orchestras have begun to question their relevance to 21st century society.
Off the podium, it's easy to be put off by his studied reserve: Eschenbach is no cool-headed professional who treats everyone the same. In the right company he is known to sparkle, but you have to click; otherwise his unease comes out and he doesn't say much. That suggests an underlying insecurity – hardly surprising, given the circumstances of his childhood. His mother died while giving birth to him in 1940 in Breslau – then in Germany, now Wroclaw in Poland. His father died on the Russian war front. Fleeing towards Hamburg, Eschenbach saw his grandmother die of typhoid as she lay at his side. Aged five, he was rescued by his cousin, a pianist and singer, but for nearly a year didn't speak. Music became his language – and his life.
Although the young Eschenbach studied conducting, he made his name as a pianist: his carefully worked 1970s recordings of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert have always been well regarded. Even in the early 1980s, when the weight of his activity shifted to the podium, it was still his pianism which shone. I remember some stunning Mozart concerto marathons directed from the keyboard with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, easily eclipsing his unformed interpretations of Beethoven and Bruckner symphonies.
Texas, of all places, was the making of Eschenbach the maestro. As music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 1999, he spent five months each year in comparative obscurity, covering a wide swathe of repertory but insisting on two newly commissioned works each season. He seemed to strike a chord with American audiences, and proved a social animal when it came to glad-handing donors. When the Houston Symphony toured Europe in 1997, it was clear not only that conductor and orchestra had grown together, but that Eschenbach was ready to move on. He became hot property, picking up jobs with the North German Radio Orchestra, the Schleswig-Holstein festival and Orchestre de Paris, while continuing his links with the London Philharmonic and Chicago's Ravinia Festival.
Suddenly Eschenbach was everywhere, not always to equal effect: his Bayreuth debut with Parsifal was a flop. He is most effective when working with orchestras on a regular basis, a lesson it took him time to learn. By 2004 he will have just two jobs, in Paris and Philadelphia. What every orchestra hopes to tap into is his stylistic breadth and grasp of the Austro-German classics – a grasp that Eschenbach himself has only recently acknowledged.
"If you mention Brahms, I feel something very instinctive, even though my view of the symphonies has changed over the years. But with Beethoven, instinct is not enough. You have to study again and again, and analyse and identify himself in different periods of life and have the courage to do them differently. I recently conducted a near-complete Beethoven cycle, something I hadn't done since the early 1980s. It was the first time I felt I had given an acceptable rendition of these pieces. Previously it was too much cliché, too much tradition, too much Furtwangler, too much Klemperer. I was carrying around too many enormous impressions of these pieces – they're still the greatest symphonies. That's a burden you somehow have to get rid of, and it takes time. You have to find your own personal way to them."
An example? Eschenbach pauses. Then, quietly, he sings the transition from the introduction to the allegro at the start of the Seventh Symphony. "I think of this symphony as one, not four movements. It has two cells. One is the repeated E from that first-movement transition – it recurs in the second movement (sings the slow introduction) and the third and the fourth. The other is the A, in the scherzo and trio. This is very simply stated – there are subtler things that connect every movement. You can see similar things in the Fifth Symphony: the opening motif is permanently there, even in that mysterious moment when you hear the celli repeating it in the slow movement. And again in the scherzo, and inverted in the finale. This is another symphony I try to do quasi in one movement – relentless, fast, shocking, nothing ponderous or pathetic. I saw all these things before, but until recently I didn't have the courage to dismantle them and put them naked in front of an audience or orchestra."
For the next 18 months, however, Beethoven and Brahms will cede ground to the Berlioz bicentenary. In a recent performance of the Symphonie fantastique, Eschenbach proved himself an outstanding interpreter of this much-abused work, coincidentally demonstrating how dramatically he has raised the standards and morale of the Orchestre de Paris. He says Berlioz deserves to be honoured not just as a popular composer, but as a European and musical visionary. "If you think that the Symphonie fantastique was written when Goethe was still alive, and in some places sounds like Bartok, that's when you realise he had visionary ideas."
Like Berlioz, Eschenbach has little time for artificial boundaries, musical or geographical. Does this mean he can treat American audiences much the same as their German counterparts? "The boards of American orchestras go with you if you make exciting music, whatever kind of music it is. If you convince an orchestra about the value of a new piece of music, both of you will project that to the audience. I don't much like this word ‘classical', I don't even know what it means! I try to avoid it, just as I try not to shut myself off from popular musical forms. I'm good friends with Wynton Marsalis – we invited his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to the Schleswig-Holstein festival last year for The Nutcracker. They did their version, the festival youth orchestra did the original. Together we played his pieces, and it ended with everyone joining in an hour-long jam session. That's what you call cultural cross-fertilisation. Wonderful."

Copyright © 2002 The Financial Times