Did Christoph Eschenbach know what he was walking into in 2001 when he was appointed Philadelphia Orchestra music director? Did anybody? Could anybody?
When discussing orchestra politics a few weeks back, he admitted he'd never encountered anything like it, but rejected my comparison to Viennese intrigue. "Viennese intrigue," he said, "is transparent."
There's nothing transparent about the Eschenbach era - a time of numerous crosscurrents, no one of which defines why it was one of the shortest and messiest in Philadelphia Orchestra history.
Shall we try to start at the beginning? Even then, there were concerns on all sides when a conductor who hadn't seen the orchestra in more than four years stepped into a position once occupied by Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti and, most recently (and most important), Wolfgang Sawallisch. Not all these predecessors were great technicians or profound musical thinkers. But more than any of them, Sawallisch ended his tenure a deeply beloved figure. Following that would be a challenge for the greatest musician, even though Sawallisch heartily endorsed the kind of new ideas Eschenbach had in store.
But needing change isn't the same as wanting it. And change only works when it's wanted.
The two musicians could hardly be more fundamentally different: Sawallisch was the chiseled-in-granite curator, while the more mercurial Eschenbach is inclined to re-create a piece in the moment (within limits). Those who were 100 percent on board with Sawallisch might never have come around to Eschenbach. Musicians tend to have unwavering, even exclusive, loyalties to the music directors who hired them. And Sawallisch hired roughly 40 percent of the orchestra, including nine principal players.
Many questioned the haste of the appointment. Was it necessary? Yes. Conductors are booked years in advance, and though Sawallisch promised to stay as long as it took to find his successor, he had worrisome hospitalizations not immediately apparent to Philadelphia, but causing European cancellations. Though the Philadelphia management gave official reasons for his hospital stays, they privately admitted they knew virtually nothing, and this was one thing Sawallisch kept private.
With his successes in Houston and Hamburg, Eschenbach was a chance worth taking. The alternatives were a season or two between music directors (not advisable in an era of scant government support, and when the music director is, at the very least, a key figurehead for fund-raising) or less experienced and potentially less appropriate candidates, such as Roberto Abbado and David Robertson.
The Eschenbach appointment seemed even more timely as Sawallisch began to fail. By his final 2003 concerts as music director, he was so unsteady that musicians reportedly were mobilized to stash their instruments under their chairs should the maestro fall and need to be caught. He canceled his participation in the long-planned South American tour.
But any gratitude for having Eschenbach in the wings was overridden by the nature of his appointment: Some musicians felt it had been foisted on them. And though his concerts had new, stimulating repertoire and performances that made you experience old pieces anew, the musicians sometimes seemed maddeningly unengaged. I began to dread personal contact with some of them, inclined as they were to corner me in enclosed spaces (elevators, etc.) and complain at length about Eschenbach. The situation was like that of a ship's crew trying to prove the boat was sinking so that a new captain would be appointed.
Complaints included Eschenbach's sleepy rehearsal techniques, impulsiveness during performances, fussy rubatos, and, more recently, conducting mistakes.
I don't believe those reports are inaccurate, but they're so at odds with what I've observed elsewhere that I wonder if Eschenbach was fully himself while here. At one New York Philharmonic rehearsal, a near-feverish Eschenbach had more ideas than there was time for. Rehearsing thorny new works with Orchestre de Paris, he was a model of clarity and authority. At Ravinia, he and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra knocked out one fine, substantial concert after another with minimal rehearsal.
Nonetheless, by 2006, when he opted to not renew his contract, he was told that 80 percent of the orchestra disagreed with his interpretations. But however damning that sounds, it's so vague as to be, at face value, meaningless. How deep did the disagreement go? How often? "Yes" on Mahler? "No" on Beethoven? How important is it for them to agree? I doubt that Stokowski or Ormandy gave much thought to such matters. They were focused on getting what they wanted. Now, players have a job security that allows them ever greater power. One veteran musician complained that Eschenbach staved off applause too long at the meditative end of Das Lied von der Erde. That's not even a musical matter, proving how normally neutral factors were being turned into minuses.
In effect, there was a climate of psychological resistance born out of a power play between musicians and management. Only rarely did the orchestra withhold the famous Philadelphia sound - but how often during Eschenbach's first few seasons did it seem as if he was pushing for something greater and grander, only to get something slower and louder? As a longtime Eschenbach watcher, I always got the outlines of what he was after, and it was far deeper than what I usually heard from Sawallisch. Those just getting to know him might not have heard it that way.
His conducting mistakes were more evident in recent years. My theory is this: Ever notice how, when behind the wheel, you make far more misjudgments when there's a backseat driver eager to prove that you don't know the best way to the airport? The effects of his being undermined gave more fodder to the musicians' complaints.
Just for argument's sake, say it's possible that the musicians do indeed know what's best for Beethoven et al.; undoubtedly, they do know the mechanics of performance. But that's hardly the whole story.
Over the years, when guest conductors have played the same repertoire here and with other orchestras within a span of a few months, I've made a point of comparing the two, whether live or on radio. In the cases of Osmo Vanska, Yuri Temirkanov and Simon Rattle, the Philadelphia performances were always prettier, but the ones elsewhere were often more cogent and articulate.
The best example is Rattle's Gurrelieder, which was alluring in Philadelphia but revelatory in Berlin. Is alluring enough? Maybe, if that's what you're used to.
Christoph Eschenbach is joined by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and special guest artist mezzo Susan Graham, in a farewell chamber concert today in Verizon Hall at 3 p.m. Tickets: $19-$29. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org. EndText