One of Christoph Eschenbach's first public appearances after he was named music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra‹only the seventh conductor to hold this position‹was at a benefit for the Network for New Music in the fall of 2002. This superb but decidedly esoteric ensemble was a surprising choice for an early meet and greet by Philadelphia's newest music director. No doubt Eschenbach had also made the obligatory round of high-roller parties, but a signal of keen interest in music of our time sent a ripple of excitement through the local contemporary-music scene.
"I found out that the audiences were very open to new things," recalls Eschenbach of that first season with the Orchestra. "I spoke to the audience and introduced them to the composers, who then explained their work. It was not a lecture, but a three- or four-minute talk, which was enough to break the ice. I am very confident that in the future this practice will continue and expand even more, to take the audience further into the land of curiosity."
Of course, Philadelphians‹and indeed, music lovers in general‹have been well-familiar with "the land of curiosity." Leopold Stokowski, for instance, gave the American premiere of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" in 1916, cramming the stage of the Academy of Music with performers, and putting The Philadelphia Orchestra firmly on the world musical map. In the heyday of the Eugene Ormandy era, world premieres were a common occurrence as the Orchestra competed with organizations across the land to secure first performances of music by Dmitri Shostakovich, Béla Bartók, Samuel Barber, and many others. So Eschenbach's vision, in this light, represents more of a renaissance than a revolution. As the music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 1999, he followed a similar path in what is arguably a more conservative city, and left a significant legacy.
In Philadelphia, Eschenbach has lost little time in engaging the music of our time, very often in novel ways. One of his early concerts as the new music director featured a performance of the Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie preceded by a performance by a gamelan ensemble, in order to demonstrate the powerful influence of Asian music on the French composer.
He has brought in the orchestra's first animateur, which is a liaison between the musicians and the audience. The job went to Thomas Cabaniss, who filled the same role at the New York Philharmonic. This season The Philadelphia Orchestra has commissioned new works from Daniel Kellogg, Gerald Levinson, Jennifer Higdon, and Sofia Gubaidulina, and has also performed recent music by Henri Dutilleux, Magnus Lindberg, John Adams, George Walker, Michael Daugherty, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Christopher Rouse. The Orchestra's February 28 appearance at Carnegie Hall will feature the New York premiere of Concerto for Orchestra, "Zodiac Tales" by Bright Sheng, described by Eschenbach as "one of the foremost composers of our time."
It is all part of Eschenbach's campaign: "Living composers are not monsters!" he proclaims. "What we get in the theater, museums, and books is new. Why should it be the opposite in music?"
On the other hand, nobody should get the impression that Eschenbach is remaking this storied orchestra into a strictly new-music ensemble. "Eighty percent of what we play is more familiar repertoire," he says. So it should not be at all surprising that in addition to world premieres, Eschenbach's third season as music director also includes a Beethoven festival and the continuation of an acclaimed, five-year Mahler cycle. Both celebrations will be included in the Orchestra's Carnegie Hall concerts this season: Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 will be performed on February 28; No. 8 follows on April 21 along with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.
Characteristically, Eschenbach conceives of such standard repertoire as if it, too, were new. "This season we want to take Beethoven out of the 'classical' box and show him as the revolutionary and visionary he was," the maestro explains. "Mahler broke radically with the symphonic form. His music is a journey, and he managed the enormous distances with incredible craftsmanship. The Orchestra and I‹and our audiences‹are rediscovering these old masterworks, which appear to our minds as ever young."
While Eschenbach's programming formulas honor the Philadelphia Orchestra traditions, they are also stamped with his particular brand of artistic inquisitiveness and joy for music making. And while others continue to speculate about the imminent death of classical music, the conductor does not tend to view the situation in dire terms and is actually rather sanguine about its future.
"I don't believe at all in a crisis of classical music," he says. "The orchestras of today, especially those that perform at the highest levels, like The Philadelphia Orchestra, and youth orchestras all over the world with players who have the potential to join the great orchestras‹in all of them there is tremendous positive spirit. From that alone it is impossible to believe that classical music will die. And the range of new talent has multiplied in recent years, which is an inspiration to us all. Still, orchestras have to revitalize themselves and find new ways to get their music out all over the world."
Peter Burwasser writes frequently about the arts.