The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, May 24, 2005  

To Say Nothing of Herr Eschenbach

Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin today raises several timely questions about the near-term outlook for the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director Christoph Eschenbach in an article the ostensible subject of which is the orchestra’s soon-to-depart president, Joseph H. Kluger (“At Orchestra, He Leaves a Mixed Legacy,” hyperlinks added):

Assessing Kluger’s achievements is easier. He leaves behind a senior staff that is industrious and optimistic, and he has instilled a governance philosophy that has musicians, staff and board taking a more egalitarian role in making important decisions. Both will serve the organization well as . . . the orchestra decides whether the players’ problems with Christoph Eschenbach can be fixed (Kluger says he makes the players feel “insecure”), or whether a new music director is needed.

The Eschenbach problem is the most urgent, even if the potential merger and question of Kluger’s successor demand immediate attention. Conductors are booked years in advance, and the orchestra does not seem to have a relationship even at the fledgling stage with a viable successor.

But all of these issues are interrelated. How can the orchestra decide who its next president will be if it doesn’t know whether that president will be leading just an orchestra, or both an orchestra and an arts center? Should Eschenbach participate in naming a new president if he himself won’t be around to work with that person? Or, conversely, is it ultimately productive for Eschenbach to name a close ally from his past -- if that ally will only face an uphill battle in getting musicians to take to Eschenbach? (His current contract concludes in 2008.) […]

Kluger recently expressed confidence in Eschenbach, claiming that the conductor is “misunderstood.” “I really believe in him,” Kluger said. “I think he is a different conductor from Wolfgang Sawallisch and Riccardo Muti. He has a Dionysian emotion that is the opposite from Wolfgang Sawallisch’s Apollonian musicianship. As a result, Eschenbach’s interpretations are different all the time. What our musicians respected about Sawallisch was his musicianship. There were no surprises after rehearsal. Christoph Eschenbach is all about surprises, which makes musicians feel insecure in performance.”

Or as I’ve heard it said from inside, uncertain about Eschenbach’s abilities.

And here it gets even more interesting:

Aside from making musicians feel insecure, Eschenbach may have another good reason to feel nervous. His biggest supporters are evaporating. Kluger leaves at the end of the season; principal violist Roberto Díaz, almost alone in assuring musicians they would grow to like Eschenbach, will gradually step aside next season to run the Curtis Institute of Music; Judith Karp Kurnick, Eschenbach’s hand-holder on the administration side, is leaving; and Richard L. Smoot, who headed the search that named Eschenbach, says he will make way for a new board chairman after Jan. 1.

Still more troubling:

In attracting new talent, Smoot acknowledged that there is a gap between what the orchestra pays Kluger, about $285,000 a year, and what other orchestra presidents earn. “I am not sure that we’re going to be up in that $500,000, $600,000, $700,000 range at this time,” he said. “We certainly want to get the right person. On the other hand we can’t put this orchestra in a situation financially that we can’t tolerate.”

Then Dobrin, who earlier in the article enumerated Kluger’s assets and achievements, points to more than one of his failings:

Kluger, in the end, was a kind of talent wrangler, and it is on these terms that his tenure must be judged -- getting musicians to understand harsh-world realities (or not), persuading rich and talented civic leaders to join the board (or not), wooing the best possible music director (or not), inspiring a staff with praise and an articulate vision for the future (or not).

Kluger sometimes said things that undermined his credibility.

He took a raise while asking musicians to take pay cuts. When the Philadelphia Orchestra lost its national radio broadcasts, Kluger claimed that all orchestras were losing their national radio broadcasts -- even though anyone with a radio could hear he was wrong. During contract negotiations, he sat by nodding as an underling blamed the orchestra’s financial problems partially on the Kimmel Center, which she said did not make good on its promise to provide office space to the orchestra -- a claim he later recanted. Such missteps hardly promoted an atmosphere of trust.

And, what with the orchestra’s past problems with the players’ union, Dobrin can’t help but note what could prove the most tendentious near-term issue of all: “In any case, musicians won’t have Kluger to blame for what promises to be yet another difficult contract negotiation (yes, it’s right around the corner).”

I wish that were good news for everyone concerned. Somehow, though, I doubt it will be.

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