The planets, at least those over Philadelphia, are clearly in alignment. In quick succession the city has acquired a brand-new concert hall, a brand-new orchestra endowment, and a brand-new music director. Christoph Eschenbach, who succeeded Wolfgang Sawallisch at the helm of The Philadelphia Orchestra in September, says modestly that he "arrived at a beneficial moment," but the fact is that he contributed toward that moment in a very real way. He admits, when pressed,"I was lucky, to speak honestly, to play an instrumental part in raising a big, big gift‹the second biggest in the Orchestra's history." The $50 million gift from the Annenberg Foundation was announced at the same time as Eschenbach's appointment, which is, by any measure, a propitious signal as he takes over Philadelphia's Kimmel Center podium.
While Eschenbach and the Philadelphians are already well acquainted‹he has conducted the Orchestra many times as a guest‹his new role as music director will entail changes, some of which he is quite ready to spell out, without being in the least dogmatic.
"Every music director has a personal approach," he says. "But this orchestra has a great tradition and a 103-year history; artistic stability is very much guaranteed. I can build on that stability. But, of course, we live in the 21st century, and now we want to be looking forward, toward new things. We will widen the repertoire to include more music by living composers. And as I have an affinity for new music, this orchestra will get a lot of it."
Leading the pathway into new pieces will be the composers themselves whenever possible, "so that audiences see that these are human beings who have something to say," explains Eschenbach, who recalls a concert with composer Oliver Knussen, "a very wonderful, funny guy." When Knussen asked what he should say onstage, Eschenbach says, "I told him to talk about his grandmother if he wanted to, that it was just enough for him to be there, and for people to feel the radiance of his personality."
The Philadelphians' image will change, Eschenbach says, as "unfamiliar scores get into their hands and brains and emotions very quickly." Future plans are not, however, cast in stone. "I don't want to predict things," he adds, "or to fix spots in the future and say, 'There is where we must go.' I am flexible; it would be inartistic, I think, to pin down the future in minute detail."
Still, a couple of changes may already be noted by observant concertgoers. From the start, Eschenbach has spoken of breaking down barriers between players and listeners, and his first step was exceedingly simple: "I tell the Orchestra, when they bow they should turn to the audience, to receive applause with open faces, instead of looking at each other. It makes an enormous impact."
Listeners also get a view of the inner workings of the Orchestra through open rehearsals, during which the conductor's remarks to the players are miked so that everyone can hear them. "No secrets," Eschenbach says. (You may discover more about the conductor's own inner workings on his personal website, www.christoph-eschenbach.com, where he promises to discuss his favorite authors, painters, and choreographers!)
The German-born Eschenbach, who just turned 64, can look back on a massive discography, a solid portion of it made during his career as an internationally acclaimed pianist, and the rest reflecting his work with a variety of orchestras, including the Houston Symphony, of which he was music director for 11 years. (He left Houston in 1999, and ended his direction of Chicago's Ravinia Festival last summer.) While he now confines his keyboard performances to chamber music and to accompanying an occasional vocalist, a pianist's perception continues to color his orchestral work. "I think a musician who conducts a Schumann symphony and doesn't know the piano works of Schumann is not well off. One who conducts a Schubert symphony and doesn't know the songs or the four-hand pieces is also not quite at ease in the Schubert Eighth or Ninth Symphony. And so I am very happy about my former life as a pianist." He adds, with a faint smile, "As a soloist I went through the hands of many conductors, good ones and bad ones. And I learned from all of them."
Among the good ones was Cleveland's George Szell, whom Eschenbach credits with having influenced him greatly both as a pianist and conductor: "Szell showed me so many aspects of music that were not totally clear to me‹to make a score transparent, to make it lucid, to make it project in a way that one hears every note. He said, 'Why would a composer write a note when you can't hear it?' He was a perfectionist."
Shirley Fleming is a frequent contributor to Playbill.