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WPAS: Philadelphia Orchestra

Christoph Eschenbach
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
On Sunday afternoon, Washington Performing Arts Society concluded another excellent season with the latest concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The impressively full hall bore witness to the continued popularity of this prestigious ensemble, in spite of the turning of critical opinion against it. According to one recent assessment of American orchestras, the Philadelphians are no longer among the symphonic Big Five. The problems began when current Music Director Christoph Eschenbach was appointed, over the opposition of some of the musicians. Although the reviews since then have been getting better, Eschenbach decided not to renew his contract after the 2007-08 season. The Philadelphia leadership has taken the unusual step of not appointing a new Music Director, instead naming Charles Dutoit as chief conductor and artistic adviser. In related news, Eschenbach will also be replaced at the podium of the Orchestre de Paris by Paavo Järvi in 2010. Eschenbach's relationship with the administration of both orchestras remains troubled.

Other Reviews of This Tour:

Peter Dobrin, Orchestra fine in Brahms 'No. 1,' Schubert songs (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12)

Paul Horsley, Woodwinds take the stage Philly soloists show what scholars can’t: Our ear knows when it’s Mozart (Kansas City Star, May 16)

Jane Palmer, Concert Review: A premier orchestra lives up to reputation (Omaha World-Herald, May 18)

Richard Scheinin, Feuding Philadelphians never sounded better (San Jose Mercury News, May 23)

Timothy Mangan, Philly Orchestra unsettled (Orange County Register, May 24)

Mark Swed, Philadelphia Orchestra strikes inconsistent note (Los Angeles Times, May 25)

Valerie Scher, Backstage feud is set aside at Copley in terrific concert (San Diego Union-Tribune, May 26)

R. M. Campbell, Philadelphia Orchestra's concert is riveting but subtle (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 30)

Melinda Bargreen, Philadelphia Orchestra's impassioned playing elicits cheers (Seattle Times, May 30)

Tim Page, Despite Discord, Philadelphia Is in Tune With Its Maestro (Washington Post, June 5)

David Patrick Stearns, A last stop on the orchestra's three-week tour (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 5)

Previously on Ionarts:

Jens F. Laurson, Philadelphia Orchestra & Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg (December 2, 2004)

JFL, To the Beat of a New, Similar Drum (November 30, 2005)

JFL, From Goerne to His Distant Beloved (July 18, 2005)

JFL, Matthias Goerne in Schumann Songs (February 20, 2005)

JFL, Philip Glass World Premiere and Matthias Goerne (January 21, 2005)
Eschenbach made a daring decision to open the concert with Arnold Schoenberg's first Kammersinfonie (op. 9). Although the selection caused predictable grumbling among more conservative listeners, this early work, premiered in Vienna in 1907, is more tonal in style than much Schoenberg. In fact, if the piece had been listed as the work of Richard Strauss, audiences would likely react quite differently -- an experiment in deception and perception that would be interesting to try sometime. Unfortunately, Schoenberg's name is a lightning rod for anti-modern malcontents.

It was brilliant programming, in any case, that gave Eschenbach the chance to show off 16 of his masterful principal players, with particularly strong contributions from the flute and piccolo (performed here by separate musicians), horn, and oboe players. Schoenberg telescoped the four movements of a traditional symphony into a dense 20 minutes, with an ardent opening section, a quasi-Wagnerian slow episode, a comic scherzo section contrasting high and low sounds, and an exciting fast conclusion. The piece plays with extremes, skewing especially to the bass, with prominent use of bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon, cello and bass, and testing all the players by driving the instruments to the edges of their traditional ranges.

Matthias Goerne, baritone

German baritone Matthias Goerne, whom we have reviewed several times at Ionarts, then took the stage to sing a set of Schubert songs. This was especially fortunate since he had been forced to cancel two previous appearances on this tour, because of a family illness. His voice, an instrument stronger in its higher register than its lowest notes, is a thing of velvet smoothness, capable of a crystal-clear diction that manages not to interrupt a pure legato. Schubert crafted his songs for the piano, and what orchestration of them gains in the possibility of greater tonal color, it risks in overbearing sound.

Eschenbach and the orchestra clearly relished the role of accompanying, creating almost uniformly the perfect sound tapestry for the words in Goerne's mouth, as in the opening Shakespeare translation, An Silvia (D. 891), with its animated lute-like orchestration. A substantial part of the pleasure derived from this set, between almost all of the songs of which the audience could not refrain from applauding, was in the skilful orchestrations, mostly by Brahms, Webern, and Reger. The sweeping Faustian introduction to Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, the muted brass colors in Der Wegweiser (from Winterreise), and the rippling brook variations in the strophic song Tränenregen (from Die Schöne Müllerin) were all necessary to the atmosphere.

Music director Christoph Eschenbach leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, photo by Michael T. Regan

The second half was dedicated to Brahms's first symphony (C minor, op. 68). This is the Philadelphia Orchestra's bread and butter, with its sonic boom of an opening, moments of glassy smoothness, and preference for large gesture. Eschenbach's reading seemed at odds with the orchestra at times, as in the slightly discombobulated middle section of the second movement and a third-movement Allegretto that was a bit too far to the jaunty side. Even if it was not as polished as one could have hoped, which we could attribute as much to fatigue at the end of a long tour as to discord between the orchestra and Eschenbach, this Brahms was smoldering, emotional playing, with solid brass and lush strings. For a single encore, it was more Brahms, the fifth Hungarian dance, played with abandon and yet almost grudgingly given.

Orchestras on next season's WPAS series include the La Scala Philharmonic (October 10), the Cleveland Orchestra (October 15), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra playing Schoenberg's first Kammersinfonie again (!) (October 18), Yuri Temirkanov and Julia Fischer with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (October 23), the Philadelphia Orchestra but this time with James Conlon (December 6), the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam (February 3), and the Orchestre National de France (April 28).


Anonymous said...

I heard the Philadelphians in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, and found their playing in general pretty sloppy, especially in the Brahms symphony. It seemed like Eschenbach was pushing for things the orchestra was unwilling to give, but maybe I'm just over-interpreting....

Charles T. Downey said...

Tim, that was my impression, too, which is what I was trying to say in the final paragraph. Interesting that you heard the same thing earlier in the tour. Thanks!