Eschenbach returns in grand style

Phil Orch Jan 10. (Maestro Eschenbach with the Philadelphia Orchestra Jan. 10)

Former Philadelphia Orchestra musical director Christoph Eschenbach returned to Philly on what so far has been the coldest week of winter, but he was igniting the warmest orchestral sounds on the Verizon Hall stage Jan 10. Eschenbach left in 2008 and his conducting tenure was relatively short and not without its struggles. He has since become musical director of the National Symphony and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Eschenbach back on the podium look practically jubilant on the podium, bringing a seasoned vibrancy to the program of Strauss and Schumann.

Digging in from the start with Richard Strauss’Till Eugenspiegel’s Merry Peaks
a swirling, bombastic tone poem that, for its time, shakes classical structure by the tail. Strauss conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra first performance of the piece in the Academy of Music in 1904. The musical narrative of the pranks of a German folk hero percolate, appear and vanish; a collage of different sounds, anticipating classical fusion, is robustly accented. Eschenbach was dancey and seemingly engaged with every player, pivoting around for precision progressions. This was one pumped maestro.

To achieve Strauss’ matrix of sonic quality, Eschenbach moved the players around from their usual spots on the Verizon stage- the cellos positioned in the conductor circle, with the basses at stage right instead of their usual spot on the left and the violins flanking the full front. The winds and brass on low risers presumably to equalize and spike the rear flank instruments which facilitated beautiful blending of a muscled brass.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has been featuring their own ranks more as premier soloists and it was great to see hornist Jennifer Montone, such a virtuosic player consistently in every style in front to tackle Strauss’ Horn Concerto, an early, decidedly studious work. In three un-paused movements with her typical lucidity. The piece itself, next to later, more adventurous Strauss, seems more like a conservatoire technique exercise. But Montone brings her beautiful tone and her flawless interplay with the other musicians Outside of one wayward note, Montone’s precision and lyricism is exquisite.

The concert was going so well Eschenbach could have cruised through Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 and still held this audience. And there are memories with this orchestra of his disengaged and cold technique with romantic era warhorses. Not so with for this passionate interpretation of Schumann, Eschenbach giving it a majestic intimacy, the orchestra expressing the soulful musicality. Outstanding solo lines in the third movement by oboist Richard Woodhams, Ricardo Morales on clarinet and Daniel Matsukawa’s bassoon.

The strength of this concert was not lost on the audience who gave Eschenbach a lusty standing ovation and all of the players applauded him.