Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

September 23, 2003

Musical Whirlwind: Christoph Eschenbach swears in as Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra

By Wolfgang Sandner (translated)

No matter how one may like to judge his takeover as the seventh musical director in the one-hundred-and-three-year-old history of the Philadelphia Orchestra in musical terms: Christoph Eschenbach has demonstrated, in any case, an instinct for the symbolism of the moment and for the inclemency of the weather and used it as a metaphor for a possibly more blessed artistic perspective. As he gave his first concert at the end of last week as Music Director with the orchestra in the new hall of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the hurricane Isabel was just raging over the American city in the eastern part of the country. Eschenbach publicly thanked all those who literally sent all storm warnings to the winds and handsomely filled Verizon Hall, architecturally protected by the giant outer hall of the Kimmel Center from street noise and stormy weather. Two days later, after two more equally well attended subscription concerts, he congratulated himself, the orchestra and his public for having successfully defied Isabel, and promised his now best proven as undaunted listeners "Indoor Hurricanes" for the near and far future. The supposedly so conservative, as well as critical, music lovers in Philadelphia took note of it with composed humor.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has not experienced hurricanes in the hall for a long time, perhaps most recently in Leopold Stokowski's time till 1938, whose acclaimed concerts of contemporary music from Schoenberg to Varèse, which have remained in memory as much as his tonal experimental curiosities, his crazily witty tempi and high-handed arrangements. Thereafter, in the suspiciously world-record-like forty-four years under Eugene Ormandy, of Hungarian origin, the orchestra developed into something completely different, which nevertheless did not go down as small in the musical history of America: the "Philadelphia sound," that broad brilliant sound, which has since then become the orchestra's trademark and has guaranteed it a seemingly unassailable place among the "big five" symphonic orchestras.

The big five: whether this still corresponds to the actual level of the orchestra, can remain aside, especially when one considers what say Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons with the orchestra in Pittsburgh, Herbert Blomstedt and Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra or Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in its younger days have accomplished in the areas of refinement of sound, homogeneity within each instrumental section, new repertoire and new performance forms. Yet the orchestras in Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York remain -however one wishes to arrange them in sequence -a fine club which not leastly is defined through the amount of each donation, which constitutes the economic base of the almost exclusively privately funded American orchestra.

So it will have contributed to strengthening Christoph Eschenbach's position in Philadelphia from the start that he succeeded in obtaining a fifty million dollar lead gift contribution from the Annenberg Foundation to the orchestra's endowment campaign, the second highest amount that has ever been put at the disposal of an American ensemble and that now places the Philadelphia Orchestra financially above the musicians say in Cleveland; Boston naturally remains, now as before, unsurpassable in this respect. The money from the Foundation is to be used in three ways: for educational purposes, which does not mean only the relationship to the famous Curtis Institute, but also the mobilization of younger listeners; for touring, above all within America itself; and finally for recording, which the orchestra, thanks to the technical furnishings of the Kimmel Center, will be able to complete independently of major recording companies and their unstable economic conditions.

What one may expect of Christoph Eschenbach musically in Philadelphia, he has emphasized again and again not only in interviews, but also demonstrated unmistakably in the programming of his first concert. So he made his entrance right away with the world premiere of Avatar, a work by fifty-two-year-old Gerald Levinson from Philadelphia, with Leonard Bernstein's "Jeremiah" of 1942, along with Johannes Brahms' First Symphony. New, American, romantic: that is the triad, which has now been sounded and which the orchestra and its public from the dominantly 19th century European musical tradition, which Ormandy, Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch represented, should by degrees lead into the 21st century. On this occasion it may have surprised only those who determine novelty by date, how modern “Brahms the Progressive One,” so-called by Schoenberg, appeared in comparison to Gerald Levinson with his youngest composition, which was commissioned by Philadelphia.

Within Eschenbach's sound conception, he interpreted Brahms' First actually and without aesthetic malice as if were Beethoven's Tenth, which means it singled out the motivic work, the structural connections, the compositional architecture, and to a lesser degree the sound color density and the melodic-rhythmic pathos, which right at the beginning of the slow introduction is produced through the insistent kettledrums and the melancholy strings.

It depended less on the acoustical circumstances when Levinson's ten minute orchestral piece Avatar (which, coming from Sanskrit, means something like cosmic energy or the epiphany of the divine on earth) exhibited no noteworthy musical physiognomy and in its irresolute eclecticism between Messiaenic sound sensuality, Bartók's barbarisms, Mahler-like string Melos and neo-romanticism only revealed its author's great theoretical knowledge accompanied by a relatively small ability for obvious compositional unity. "Jeremiah," Leonard Bernstein's first argument with a three movement symphony, is of a different caliber, at the end of which -with beautiful sound and sung with great expression by Swedish mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson -stands an eerie intensive Lamento, which with corresponding orchestral intensity was shaped into the apex of Christoph Eschenbach's inauguration and acted as a promise for a great common future together.

Copyright © 2003 F.A.Z. GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, Germany