Philadelphia Daily News

January 19, 2004

A talk with the maestro

By Tom Di Nardo

Assembling a 30-week orchestra season - a giant puzzle involving guest conductors, dozens of soloists and a vast repertoire - is a monumental task. Philadelphia Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach added an extra variable for the 2004-2005 season - an overriding theme of humanity and hope.

Some scheduling in this first season had already been booked upon his naming. But next season is completely imbued with his musical signature, and he discussed it with the Daily News by phone from Paris.

Q: How do the Mahler, Dvorak and late-works themes express your goal?
A: My intention was to make a statement of humanity, in all kinds of aspects. Dvorak, for instance, is very much for me an avant-gardist, who traveled to America to hear Indian and black music to incorporate into his own language. This distillation of folk music is proof that music is a global issue, knows no barriers, [is] completely free.

Q: Do many of the choices have a personal stamp?
A: Yes, some are tied to my own destiny, the middle-European aspect. I was born in Breslau, near Prague's great Czech tradition and close to Bohemia, birthplace of Mahler. My destiny as a child brought me, and so many people in the world, near horrible times, and it's reflected next season in works by Martinu and Schoenberg, followed by works full of hope.

Q: And the "Late Great Works" retrospective?
A: These works are the result of what these great composers learned about the essence of life, like a little island of masterpieces which cover an enormous range of feeling and emotion. For instance, Mahler's Ninth Symphony, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, the third act of (Wagner's) "Parsifal" and (the late) Luciano Berio's "Stanze" - all celebrate deep life experiences from different aspects.

Q: Is "Parsifal" a part of your plan for concert versions of opera?
A: I hope to do some in the future, but the third act of "Parsifal," with only four characters, is more like an oratorio.

Q: Is the nationalistic stamp part of your planning?
A: There's national identity everywhere, and we also have Norwegian songs, Russian music, music of Delius on the schedule. There's so much great music in this world. But our goal is to make a program that coheres, and that's one of the things I think about very much.

Q: There are nine new pieces this year. Will this be typical?
A: Yes, it should be. Nine isn't very much, because an audience should be informed about what is being written today, with wet ink. Last season, I was overwhelmed by the audience reaction to new music, because people say Philadelphia is conservative. I said then that we were trying to raise the invisible curtain, and composers introduced their own works to great acceptance.

Q: You aren't conducting either of the two world premieres?
A: Other guests were willing to take part in my message, so I gave some to other conductors, but not because I didn't like the works. In my eyes, they're all good pieces, and I feel very responsible no matter who's conducting.

Q: Tell us about the composer Matthias Pintscher, whose works you've recorded.
A: He's the most famous German composer after Wolfgang Rihm, very gifted and only 32 years old. And Esa-Pekka Salonen's piece is like super Sibelius!

Q: Are you familiar with Tan Dun's piece for cello, video and orchestra? [Tan Dun is mostly known in the West for his score to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."]
A: No, but I've talked to him about it in China, actually in Macau. He'll be here to speak to the audience about it.

Q: Besides a Dvorak Piano Quartet, will you be playing much piano music with the Orchestra musicians?
A: Yes, I believe so. There's an AIDS concert with [flutist] Jeffrey Khaner, and some others. There's very little time to practice and, frankly, I can't stand to play badly!

Q: Looking back, are you heartened by your first few months?
A: I'm very happy with this intense work with the Orchestra. We have found a familiarity together, and we will continue to develop this into a real musical family that projects that feeling. It's also a beautiful thing that we are opening the Carnegie Hall season with the televised program, with [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma and [soprano] Renée Fleming in the Strauss Four Last Songs.

Q: Renée Fleming told us she loves you dearly.
A: I love that woman! I think that Strauss was telepathic - he knew Renée Fleming was coming to sing his songs.

Q: Have you any concerns about the season's acceptance?
A: Just that I don't want to give the impression that they are into a heavy season with unresolved, unrelieved sadness. It's more about happy reflections on life, joy, reflection and introspection. The works I mentioned resolve and sort of rise up into a heavenly sphere and leave you speechless. There's Mahler's wonderful resolution of his life's tragedy. And there's Dvorak, whom you can dance home with.

Copyright © 2004 The Philadelphia Daily News