Eschenbach Experiment Shows Musicians Now Rule: Norman Lebrecht
By Norman Lebrecht
Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Christoph Eschenbach may go down as the
last conductor of a major orchestra to be appointed above the
heads of its players.
When Philadelphia announced Eschenbach as its music director in
January 2001 sour faces could be seen all around the front desk.
The shaven-headed German, a decade-long success in Houston,
Texas, had not conducted the elite Liberty Bell ensemble in five
years and the musicians had not liked him much at the time.
But Philadelphia was in a race for new batons with New York and
Boston and its impatient chairman demanded a recognizable name
on the podium for the year's big opening -- the $265 million
Verizon hall at the Kimmel Center, a mall-type 21st-century
upgrade on the quaint old Academy of Music.
Although the musicians had a representative on the search
committee, his voice went unheard. When a canny agent sparked
rumors that Eschenbach was on New York's shortlist, the deal was
done within days, with the conductor to take up his post in
The hall, which opened in December 2001, turned out to be an
acoustic letdown with poor sound diffusion and some fuzziness
on stage. Lawsuits flew, the orchestra's manager departed and
Eschenbach's bad start went gurgling into a black hole.
When the orchestra announced last week, amid the usual affirmations
of mutual esteem, that his contract was not being renewed after
the 2007-8 season, Eschenbach became the first maestro ever to
be bounced by Philadelphia and the closeted world of music
management got a wake-up call.
Why did it unravel so fast? Was his Debussy too prissy, his Haydn
too sweet? There was adverse criticism aplenty in the local
papers, but if bad reviews ever drove a player out of town no
football club would be able to field a full team. The trouble
lay in the original mismatch. The Philadelphia Orchestra has a
high opinion of itself, and rightly so. Leopold Stokowski formed
a crack outfit in World War I and exploited electric recording
to trademark the Philadelphia Sound.
His successor, the physically unprepossessing Eugene Ormandy,
preserved that sound in aspic for half a century as the highest-
selling maestro in America. Riccardo Muti, the La Scala chief
(until toppled last year by a musicians' revolt), maintained a
high profile through the 1980s and early 1990s; Wolfgang Sawallisch,
a pedigree German, tended the flame to general satisfaction.
Eschenbach was an outsider, not of the same league, and that
stacked against him.
Many of the players in Philadelphia are professors at the Curtis
Institute. They have a low tolerance for showiness and resented
Eschenbach's designer outfits and balletic leaps. Their faces
were often a tableau of discontent. At a concert of fifth
symphonies by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky at the BBC Proms this
summer, it was noticeable how little some of the musicians looked
at their notional master.
"I look upon my past three years as music director of the
Philadelphia Orchestra with satisfaction and great pride," said
Eschenbach, 66, last week at the parting of ways. "I am proud
of particular accomplishments, such as the appointment of nine
musicians including four principals."
The orchestra's chief executive, James Undercofler, said of
Eschenbach that "being able to work with him closely, albeit for
a short time, has deepened my respect for him."
Top of the musicians' wish list is Vladimir Jurowski, 34, the
Glyndebourne and London Philharmonic chief who has been asked
back twice after an impressive debut. Other names may come into
the reckoning but Philadelphia will listen closely to its players.
In the days of great dictators such as Toscanini and Koussevitzky,
Solti and Karajan, musicians were seldom asked for their opinion
and did as they were told. In the era of instant communications,
they expect first and final say in who conducts. The failure of
the Eschenbach test has confirmed who's paramount.
(Norman Lebrecht is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions
expressed are his own [and those of the Mayor of New York City].)
To contact the writer of this story: Norman Lebrecht at
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