Philadelphia's Eschenbach Passes the Baton

Christoph Eschenbach will step down at the end of the 2007-08 season.
Christoph Eschenbach will step down at the end of the 2007-08 season. (By George Widman -- Associated Press)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

Christoph Eschenbach will step down as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the end of the 2007-08 season, the orchestra said in an announcement yesterday that caught the music world by surprise.

The players were told at the end of a morning rehearsal, and the news went out in an unheralded e-mail in midafternoon. Eschenbach, 67, was said to be at his home in Paris and unavailable for comment, but Kevin Kleinmann, his spokesman, said the conductor had decided he no longer wanted to be tied down to a major orchestra. "He has too many other plans and projects -- opera, youth orchestras, festivals, the Internet."

The Philadelphia Orchestra was founded in 1900 and has had only five music directors since Leopold Stokowski became music director in 1912 and quickly elevated it to greatness. Eschenbach's tenure -- five years -- will be the shortest in the orchestra's history.

James Undercoffer, the orchestra's recently appointed president and CEO, acknowledged that the decision had been made only within the past few days. "It was in Christoph's contract that we had to come to an agreement by August," he said. "But he was kind to me, knowing I was a newcomer to the orchestra, and allowed the talks to go on until October."

When asked who might replace Eschenbach as music director, Undercoffer begged off. "I'm not in speculation mode yet," he said. "I'm still in 'honoring Christoph' mode. Of course we're already talking about the future. But there's nothing to report just yet."

It is no secret that relations between the orchestra and Eschenbach, who came aboard as music director-designate in 2002 and became music director in 2003, have not always been smooth. To begin with, he was a second choice; Simon Rattle had been offered the job as far back as 1999 but ultimately elected to take the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic. Moreover, Eschenbach was selected by a management team that was deeply unpopular with the musicians, and some players felt that they had not been properly consulted before his appointment.

Still, over the course of the past couple of years, the Eschenbach-Philadelphia team has won respect, during tours of the United States, Europe and Asia and through recordings on the Ondine label. "There is no doubt in my mind that the orchestra should recognize what it has in Eschenbach and renew his contract," critic David Patrick Stearns wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer last month. "For me the question is whether it's worth Eschenbach's trouble."

For decades, Philadelphia was numbered among America's "Big Five" orchestras -- along with Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and New York -- and even after that ranking became impossibly reductive (with incursions from Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities), it was never considered anything less than a first-rate ensemble.

Eschenbach is a guest conductor with both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris, and he has been increasingly active in opera houses throughout the world.

The National Symphony Orchestra is also looking for a music director, to replace Leonard Slatkin when he leaves at the end of the 2007-08 season.

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