In Philadelphia, An Arranged Marriage Comes To An End

After presumably much internal consternation, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced that music director Christoph Eschenbach will be leaving his position after his contract expires at the conclusion of the 2007-2008 season. I wouldn’t be surprised if this event stokes the already hot topic of how orchestras select music directors but in the end, the Philadelphia/Eschenbach issue is a moot point…

It comes as no surprised that the marriage between conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra was, at best, arranged. Add to that musician disapproval over being officially left out of the process which resulted in an extension of Eschenbach’s initial contract and you have a very unhappy internal relationship.

Furthermore, it certainly didn’t help the situation at all when the Philadelphia Orchestra Association decided to issue the infamous “Roadmap to Extinction” campaign shortly after the renewal process. these volatile elements combined together to spur a tremendous amount of public attention on a number of negative organizational issues, nearly all of which were brought upon by internal actions. The resulting mess was a real quagmire.

Fortunately, the organization has had a change in executive leadership between then and now and perhaps taking a cue from world events, they decided the best way to get out of a quagmire is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

On September 24th, the Philadelphia Inquirer published two contrasting articles, one each from their resident music journalists, about the merits of either keeping Eschenbach around or letting him go now. I don’t think it is coincidental that almost a month later, an announcement comes from Eschenbach that he’s decided to leave.

I applaud the Inquirer for realizing the value in having two full time, top notch music journalists on staff and then allowing them to air opposing views about such an important issue. This is what every American newspaper should be doing.

Nevertheless, regardless of what you think about Eschenbach or the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the reality is that you simply can’t escape the necessity of having everyone working together toward a collective vision. Top-down strategic planning simply doesn’t work in an organization the size of Philadelphia.

In the end, it is important to remember that none of this is an indication that Eschenbach isn’t a good conductor and fine musician or the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians are simply playing a game of sour grapes. Instead, it is an indication that the combination of Eschenbach and Philadelphia simply wasn’t working: no big deal. this happens all the time in the real world, and it’s high time the orchestra business started to put egos aside and get in step with how the rest of the world works.

It is far more important to see that the organization, under new administrative and board leadership, has the vision to see the problems as they exist and move in a direction that is healthy for the entire outfit. After all, one only needs to look at Chicago for inspiration to find what might become. Shortly after Daniel Barenboim’s departure, the CSO found Bernard Haitink to serve as their interim artistic figurehead until they identify a permanent music director. The players seem to love Haitink, the management and board publicly espouse the positive impact his presence has had on the organization, and the orchestra hasn’t sounded better in years. I would call that a win-win solution and there’s no reason Philadelphia wouldn’t’ be able to follow suit.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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3 thoughts on “In Philadelphia, An Arranged Marriage Comes To An End”

  1. You are absolutely right about the dynamics of the Eschenbach era at Philadelphia. His appointment was emotionally opposed by many because of the manner in which it was made, and he suffered from that, as well as what I thought was an overdone hard sell by the PR folks, with banners on every lightpost and bus stop shelter. It was top down, and it’s no wonder the musicians balked. And yet, there were memorable, beautiful performances of rarely heard music, inspiring to me, particularly, stretching the orchestra where it might not have wanted to go, but enlarging their already vast experience.

    Eschenbach may not be a “great” conductor in the tradition of Great German Conductors, but he can surprise and fulfill musical expectations when one least expects it. And, that ought to be worth a great deal to audiences. Philadelphia, unfortunately, is too conservative and adverse to the kinds of programming in which Eschenbach excells. He tried to advance New Art in a culture that is settled into the Old. It’s amazing, to me, that German audiences are more modern in their Old World acceptance of new music than the so-called New World is. America is the loser for this, and our contemporary composers suffer more than they deserve. One day, it is hoped, Philadelphia will realize what it has lost in spirit in losing Eschenbach, even if it gains something in another kind of music director.

  2. Maybe we in St. Louis need to start worrying about another “Big 5” band thinking about signing away Robertson after his contract extension ends in 2010, since after all, Kathleen van Bergen moved to their administrative team from St. L. and we’re sharing Jennifer Montone with them half time as principal horn, more or less. But the point that the previous management team bungled badly in hiring Eschenbach without giving the players more input is most valid, even if David Patrick Stearns had an equally valid point in saying “well guess what, who else could we have gotten at the time?”.

    Having seen Haitink’s Mahler 3 last weekend in Chicago, it was pretty evident that the players were happy to have him, even if they know or should know that it will be very short term. Being 77 years old, Haitink understands the temporary nature of his post better than anyone. But having a happy band in the short term does help.

    There isn’t necessarily something wrong with a “top down” marketing campaign if the players are initially happy with the conductor being so marketed. In Eschenbach, it’s evident that this wasn’t the case. His effects will be felt long term with his appointment of principals like Montone and Carol Jantsch.

    (OTOH, per Margaret’s point, maybe Robertson would be too radical for Philadelphia…)

  3. “Philadelphia, unfortunately, is too conservative and adverse to the kinds of programming in which Eschenbach excells. He tried to advance New Art in a culture that is settled into the Old” …

    Philadelphia is hardly alone in having a reputation — whether warranted or not — for being a conservative musical city. Washington, D.C. has a comparable reputation as a conservative musical city; and I would add that San Francisco’s reputation as a symphonically progressive musical city probably needs revisiting in light of MTT’s past few years of programming.

    In any case, Eschenbach introduced Philadelphia audiences to exceptionally fine contemporary works by Matthias Pintscher and Sofia Gubaidulina — performances which at least temporarily placed Philadelphia at the leading edge of American orchestral music culture.
    I would doubt that the Philadelphia Orchestra gained as much attention at any point after its televised Kimmel Center opening concert (which featured, I recall, Aaron J. Kernis’s ‘The Color Wheel’), than when they performed Gubaidulina’s exceptionally powerful ‘Feast In A Time Of Plague’.
    I believe that it will be at least a half-decade, if not more, before these fine works are programmed by the National Symphony Orchestra, under its new, yet to be announced future music director.

    And Philadelphia is in fact musically confident enough to actually announce that it will give the world premiere of a new work by Oliver Knussen at an upcoming May 2007 concert, in which Eschenbach also will lead Brahms and Matthias Goerne in various orchestrations of Schubert songs.

    The Washingnton Performing Arts Society, hosting the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kennedy Center early next June (as it has for over 40 years), refuses to announce the Oliver Knussen world premiere; leading one to wonder whether Washington’s conservative audiences will be offered a truncated program similar to the Chicago Symphony concert of a decade ago which left off the Elliott Carter ‘Partita’, and substituted instead a Strauss waltz as an encore. A little ‘truth in American symphonic advertising’ would be appreciated.

    Lastly, it remains to be seen whether David Robertson remains “radical” as he graduates to a top tier, rich American orchestra.
    Let us hope that he can remain true to his musical vision as he continues his work in America.

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