Christoph Eschenbach in Verizon Hall, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Conductor Christoph Eschenbach announced today that he will step down as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the end of the 2007-08 season.
"I look upon my past three years as Music Director ... with satisfaction and great pride," he said in a statement. "While I look forward to future endeavors, I will always take pleasure in the fact that I was a part of an exciting era for this great orchestra."
Eschenbach began his tenure at the Philadelphia Orchestra with the 2003-04 season, following one year as Music Director Designate (during which he had some notable collaborations, particularly as piano soloist, with his predecessor, Wolfgang Sawallisch).
His three years in the post so far have been marked by some notable achievements:
- the appointment of nine players, including four principals and an associate concertmaster;
- four praised concert tours, including two to Europe and one to Asia;
- increased community outreach, including free outdoor performances in Philadelphia neighborhoods;
- the recent opening of an online music store where recordings of past concerts are available for download;
- regular chamber music performances as pianist with Philadelphia Orchestra members.
He has been notably effective in helping raise funds: early in his term, the Orchestra launched a $125 million endowment drive with a $50 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation. (More than $100 million of the total has now been raised.)
Perhaps most importantly, Eschenbach was instrumental in securing a recording contract for the Philadelphia Orchestra after a ten-year hiatus; three well-received CDs — of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (with music by Martinu and Klein), Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 and Mahler's Symphony No. 6 — have been issued so far, with more planned.
All those achievements notwithstanding, today's news won't come as a surprise to everyone: there have long been rumors, within the classical music community and periodically surfacing in the press, that the relationship between Eschenbach and the Philadelphia musicians has not been entirely happy. His personal, spontaneous, sometimes mercurial style of music-making reportedly bothers some players who preferred Sawallisch's reliability in performance; his taste in modern music, which leans toward the spiky and expressionistic, seems not to sit well with the musicians or with the famously conservative Philadelphia audience. There is even, purportedly, lingering resentment among some orchestra members over the precipitous manner of Eschenbach's appointment in 2001 — he hadn't guest-conducted in Philadelphia in more than four years — at a time when several top-tier US orchestras were searching for music directors among a very small pool of available first-rank maestros.
Late last month, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran tandem columns by its two music critics on the question of whether Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra should stay together. Peter Dobrin, who has not generally been in sympathy with this maestro, wrote, "It's without any tinge of shame that Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra should part ways. Like many an arranged marriage, sometimes these things just don't work out." The more admiring David Patrick Stearns, while acknowledging the rocky start of this orchestra-conductor relationship, said that "there's no doubt in my mind that the orchestra should recognize what it has in Eschenbach and renew his contract. For me, the question is whether it's worth Eschenbach's trouble ... Were I Eschenbach, what would I do? Leave. ... Why mess with the Philadelphia Orchestra when the Vienna Philharmonic is more obviously receptive?"
Eschenbach will remain with the Philadelphia Orchestra through the 2007-08 season and will return for concerts at Verizon Hall and a European tour with the Orchestra in January/February 2009. In addition to his regular guest-conducting engagements with the Vienna Philharmonic, Lyric Opera of Chicago and other front-rank institutions, he remains music director of the Orchestre de Paris, which just returned to a newly refurbished home, the Salle Pleyel.