I'd rather be in Bremerton, Wash.?

6 minute read
What I will (and won't) miss
about Philadelphia


At the end of 1991, my wife and I left Philadelphia and moved to The Hague, where I had been offered a dream job as artistic director of the Residentie Orchestra. I would never have contemplated leaving my position as program annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra had it not been for the fact that Riccardo Muti himself had already announced his resignation from the music director’s post. My seven years working with Muti had constituted the most satisfying professional relationship in my career: It was a joy to be associated with someone who had at the same time the highest artistic standards, the most meticulous concern for detail in the way concerts were presented, the liveliest dedication to fostering the music of our own time, and the keenest understanding of what makes people tick—someone, moreover, who was always willing to accept suggestions from members of his staff, and to give due credit when he acted on them.

The Hague dream turned out to be more a nightmare, for a variety of artistic and societal reasons. The Netherlands is potentially one of the best countries in the world to live in, but innate talent and a national tradition of social justice are of little practical use when the effects of half a century of the welfare state produce a progressive abandonment of responsibility and even of the readiness to do any work. Laura’s work as a pathologist and mine as an orchestra administrator were both vitiated by this situation, and so the beginning of 1996 found us back in Philadelphia, with Laura returning to her old job and me enjoying the flexibility of a freelance critic's life.

Now once again, because her job has steadily grown more bureaucratically impossible, we are leaving again— with mixed feelings because we love Philadelphia and have wonderful friends here, but with eager anticipation for the more laid-back pleasures of life in the Seattle area. For my part, I look forward to involving myself in the musical life of a region that enjoys such resources as the Seattle Symphony, with Gerard Schwarz as its music director, the Seattle Opera, and the Northwest Chamber Orchestra. But meanwhile, as we prepare to head west, let me just cast a glance at what I shall miss on leaving Philadelphia.

First in order of importance is indeed the orchestra I used to work for. In that context, quite apart from its having landed a recording deal this past June (with the Finnish label Ondine) for the first time in years, it’s particularly vexing to be off just when the Philadelphia Orchestra is beginning to regain its sense of artistic purpose under Christoph Eschenbach’s dynamic leadership. Yes, many people will tell you, “The players really don’t like him”— but it would be hard to find an orchestra anywhere whose members unanimously approved of their music director. Making music under someone else’s artistic leadership isn't the easiest of pills to swallow, and certainly there are Philadelphia Orchestra players who find Eschenbach’s spontaneity of approach exasperating. But to judge from the conversations I've had, there are just as many who find it inspiring.

Eschenbach takes thrilling risks and almost always brings them off triumphantly; and risks are doubly rewarding after a decade under Wolfgang Sawallisch in which, apart from the occasional great moment with one or another outstanding guest conductor, dreary pedestrian safety—the middle of the interpretative road—was the order of the day. Now furthermore, for the first time since Muti left, you can have a reasonable expectation that the programming will reflect some of the more important facets of contemporary musical creativity around the world. I do not share by any means all of Eschenbach’s enthusiasms—but at least he has enthusiasms, backs them to the hilt, and presents them with a passion and an articulateness that leave no doubt who is in artistic charge.

It helps, of course, that the Orchestra plays now in Verizon Hall, a venue whose atmosphere is a superb blend of warmth and excitement, and whose acoustics have evolved in the course of four seasons from promising to really exceptional. Under Janis Price’s direction, the Kimmel Center itself, despite inevitable financial and organizational problems, has reinvigorated the city’s music scene in a variety of ways. You see, for one thing, many more young people at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, and Mervon Mehta has turned out to be a programming director with flair and charisma.

On the operatic front, too, there have been encouraging signs. When Robert Driver first took over direction of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, I found myself missing the imagination and taste that his predecessor Margaret Everitt brought to the company’s activities (despite a deplorable lack of support from some members of her board). But in the last few years Driver has begun to show us what he is really made of, with mostly impressive results— a production, for example, of Così fan tutte whose stylish wit happily erased memories of the bizarreries inflicted on that long-suffering masterpiece a few years earlier, and, in a different vein, a romp through Die Fledermaus that positively vibrated with musical brilliance and theatrical joie de vivre. Regrettable only has been the economic downturn that has led OCP more recently to reduce its expanding schedule of productions.

Similar regret must attach to the financially induced reduction of programs by the Philadelphia Singers. David Hayes has prepared (and sometimes conducted) that organization’s performances with consistently growing artistic success, and I fervently hope the downturn in its fortunes can be reversed.

The good things enumerated above I shall miss, along with the many vital contributions made to Philadelphia music by such schools as the Curtis Institute, Temple University, and the Academy of Vocal Arts. How much I shall miss Verizon remains to be seen (or heard)—I haven’t yet attended a concert in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, but I’m told it is a very fine place.

There are things I shall certainly not miss, such as the rather depressing local critical scene. It has always been my personal conviction that critics and musicians are on the same team— you have to call the negatives as you see them, but the essential aim for us all is furtherance of the great art of music in every possible way. Here, however, at least where Philadelphia’s newspaper of record is concerned, it seems too often as if the current critical staff enjoys nothing so much as disliking what it hears, and any available hint of problems, any surfacing of disputes, is picked up not with a burning desire to set things right but with a rather distasteful Schadenfreude.

As moving day looms, though, it is Philadelphia’s musical riches, rather than its relatively minor impoverishments, that stand foremost in my mind. Laura and I won’t be residents any more, but we’ll be back frequently as visitors to enjoy all those delights again.

Bernard Jacobson, until recently a contributing editor of Fanfare magazine, has spent periods as music critic of the Chicago Daily News, visiting professor of music at Roosevelt University in Chicago, program annotator and musicologist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, artistic director of the Residentie Orkest in The Hague, and artistic adviser to the North Netherlands Orchestra.

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