Philadelphia Orchestra on Tour

Written by: Colin Anderson

Just one season into his music directorship, Christoph Eschenbach is bringing one of America’s most illustrious orchestras to London as part of a European tour. Two concerts at the Barbican (21 & 22 May) come at the midpoint of a three-week schedule that begins in Paris and ends in Madrid. Eschenbach tells me that things are going “very, very well. I’m confident about the tour, and when the orchestra is the Philadelphia Orchestra there is nothing to complain about and little to change – we work on the maxim that quality knows no limits.”

The relatively few music directors that the Philadelphia Orchestra has had (not least Eugene Ormandy’s 40-year tenure) has “made the orchestra very stable.” And as Eschenbach points out, “all the music directors were European: Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti.” Eschenbach succeeds fellow-German Wolfgang Sawallisch (who, coincidentally, is due in London for Philharmonia Orchestra concerts on 10 and 17 June). “We have all brought an international aspect and the orchestra has profited from warmth and refinement that I consider my sort of music-making; it was there immediately and we understood each other.” Long-serving musicians is another plus, and their pupils “know how the orchestra functions.”

In the first Barbican concert on 21 May, the famed Philadelphia string-sound can be savoured in Schoenberg’s popular Verklärte Nacht. Sometime ago, Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces (Op.6) was billed, but “every orchestra has to count its pennies, and the Berg, which needs 105 musicians, was only wanted by two or three presenters in the three weeks.” Expect something ardent and lyrical, something not typical, maybe, of a pianist-conductor, save “I studied the violin for 15 years with a marvellous teacher who was a student of Carl Flesch; I learnt a lot about string-playing and I love the violin. This showed me the warmth of sound and tenderness. With the piano, it bothers me when I hear pianists who play digitally or bang. I always try and sing a phrase, or play the bass line like a cello or the top line like an oboe – to instrumentate the piano and explore possibilities.” Suddenly, it all makes sense. “And I played the viola in string quartets.”

The second concert, on the 22nd, includes Shostakovich’s mighty Symphony No.10 (preceded by Gil Shaham in Brahms’s Violin Concerto). “The door to Shostakovich opened rather late in my life and then a very powerful composer entered. The 10th is a very good tour piece and shows a lot of sides of the orchestra and it’s a favourite piece of mine. So it’s a good choice!”

I mention the lack of American music on the tour (Messiaen and Bruckner form the third programme). “I’m against routine! I just want to show that the orchestra is of a European background, especially Russian music and the German-Austrian school. I wanted to get away from the duty of bringing an American piece.”

With recording shrinkage, the Philadelphia Orchestra is hoping to issue performances on its own label. “We have the wonderful example of the London Symphony Orchestra who does it in a marvellous way.” Already issued are the Schumann symphonies with Sawallisch (reviewed).

The first of the Philadelphia programmes concludes with Mahler’s First Symphony. Although often played, the Philadelphia isn’t closely associated with Mahler, so maybe the result will be fresh? “That’s the word I wanted to use! You get a very fresh rendition with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I find the orchestra plays Mahler with new interest and fascination. He’s enormously visionary; his music was written for the future, for our times. If the audience wants something they want it rightfully, and Mahler is very attuned to the modern audience. The Philadelphia Orchestra mirrors my own curiosity and I’m delighted by that very positive attitude.” I cite the legendary ‘Philadelphia Sound’ – “I’m cultivating that. You will hear that – rich and warm, with wonderful woodwind-playing and grandiose brass-playing. You cannot have a great string sound and so-so playing elsewhere; it has to be an entity that melts together.”

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