This weekend,

Christoph Eschenbach

completes his tenure as the

Philadelphia Orchestra

's seventh music director.

The magnificent program could be seen as a metaphor for his finale: Schubert's Eighth Symphony, the beloved "Unfinished," and the seething, often triumphant arch of that tragic composer's ultimate, mighty Ninth.

Eschenbach's five years here, following 10 seasons with the highly admired Wolfgang Sawallisch, were far from idyllic. Some players believed they should have been informed about the choice before the public announcement, while others complained about his rehearsal methods and the new pieces he programmed.

Reviews in the press alternated between constant attacks, grudging praise and occasional lauds. Yet many players became believers as time went on, and audiences responded with enthusiasm. National magazines raved about the first five Ondine CD releases.

Though everyone has an opinion, with echoes of classic recordings in their memories, this writer found Eschenbach's interpretations to be consistent and revealed with a personal stamp.

Even when tempos first seemed a little too fast, slow or variable to these ears, they were well-considered and organic in the larger context.

Throughout all the controversy, Eschenbach simply did what he was supposed to do: conduct with personal conviction, be highly visible in the pursuit of fund raising and play chamber music with his musicians whenever possible.

We'll probably never know the specific reasons for his leaving, but there's no question about his immense regard for the musicians, a deep appreciation shared by his predecessors Riccardo Muti and Sawallisch. Twenty new musicians, a fifth of the personnel, have been selected with the blessing of the music director and search committees during his time here.

There's never been any question about his musicianship or keyboard prowess, though time pressures limit his opportunities to play. He was an internationally famed pianist long before becoming a conductor, and a sublime re-released two-CD set on DG from 1978, in which he plays and conducts five Mozart piano concertos, demonstrate his mastery.

Instead of relaxing in the few days before leaving on the orchestra's Asian tour, Eschenbach will again demonstrate that keyboard skill as a chamber music player, sharing the stage in a Sunday concert with 16 of his musicians as colleagues.

In that gesture, titled "Christoph Eschenbach and Friends" and presented by the Kimmel Center, he'll also play Schumann's "Kinderscenen" and accompany the famous American mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham.

Eschenbach will return next year for two weeks in January, then take the orchestra on a tour to Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, Luxembourg, Hungary and Austria that was arranged long in advance.

And, according to Charles Dutoit, who will take over as chief conductor for four years while contenders vie for the music directorship, Eschenbach will be welcome as a guest conductor whenever his schedule permits.

Each of the orchestra's five music directors over 96 years have put a personal stamp on the fabled Philadelphia sound. Eschenbach's signature is clearly etched on the Ondine live recordings, of which he and his musicians can be justly proud, and in the memories of Kimmel Center audiences. *

Send e-mail to dinardt@phillynews.com.

Philadelphia Orchestra with Christoph Eschenbach, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce streets, 2 p.m. today and 8 p.m. tomorrow, $38-$113. Eschenbach and Friends, with Susan Graham, Verizon Hall, 3 p.m. Sunday, $34-$69, 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org.