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Making Musicians Play Like Devils & Angels
When the National Symphony Orchestra picked Christoph Eschenbach to be its next music director, it didn’t play it safe. The drama-loving conductor can be controversial, but he’ll never be boring. By Cragg Hines
Christoph Eschenbach conducts a practice session of the National Symphony. Says a musician who worked with him in Houston: “We all would follow him off a cliff—and sometimes we did.” Photograph by Scott Suchman
Comments () | Published December 1, 2009

Within the blur of a week, the maestro conducted his way through European masterpieces, American symphonic classics, and a contemporary concerto that featured young string soloists who looked like a garage band. He beamed as he led performances by onetime prodigies whose careers he has promoted. Then he played piano accompaniment on three Schubert song cycles and capped an evening by playing the composer’s final piano sonata. Toss in a couple of tough-love master classes with young artists and a little stroking of major donors.

Some week.

Welcome to the world of Christoph Eschenbach—a whirling and creative universe. And buckle your seat belt. By this time next year, Eschenbach, one of the most exciting classical conductors of the day, will be music director of both the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center.

He will control a major part of Washington’s classical-music scene—or that part not reigned over by superstar Plácido Domingo as director of the Washington National Opera. As the KenCen’s first-ever music impresario, Eschenbach will be in a position to set the tone for much of what is heard at the region’s top performance venue.

With any luck, Eschenbach, given his intellect and charisma, will rouse the talent within the NSO, a 78-year-old ensemble that has languished outside the ring of the nation’s Big Five orchestras—Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia.

After a 3½-year reconnaissance, the NSO search committee voted last year to turn to this worldly German with a shaved head and piercing eyes.

Emotionally scarred almost at birth by World War II, Eschenbach became a first-rank solo pianist—he has two discs in Philips’s 200-CD set Great Pianists of the 20th Century—and then one of the most widely recorded classical conductors. After five decades of performing and conducting all over the world—including stints heading orchestras in Germany, Zurich, Houston, Paris, and Philadelphia—he now has been called to share some of his continental éclat with Washington and the NSO.

“ ‘Underachiever’ is not the right word” for the NSO, says Roger Sant, a member of the orchestra’s board of directors, “but I think we all feel we can do better.”

“We feel a responsibility that this be a more notorious orchestra than it has been,” says Sant, a former energy mogul who with his wife has given the NSO $20 million over the last decade, including $5 million on the day Eschenbach’s appointment was announced. “I think Eschenbach will put a new twist on it. He’s a cosmopolitan, international maestro, and he wants to leverage the orchestra’s Washingtonian-ness and its symbolism outwardly in the world.”

It will be, at minimum, interesting to watch the NSO as Eschenbach continues his rethinking of the classics and plunges into new work by contemporary composers from around the world.

That could be a needed tonic after the seemingly rudderless final seasons of the NSO’s last music director, Leonard Slatkin. Reports from musicians who took part in Eschenbach’s seven hours of private rehearsals with the NSO in August are encouraging.

Eschenbach’s personal story began on February 20, 1940, when he was born Christoph Ringmann, the son of Margarethe and Heribert Ringmann, a musicologist at the University of Breslau, which at the time was in Germany and now is in Poland. He relates his early years of survival in Ruth Yorkin Drazen’s public-TV documentary A Wayfarer’s Journey: Listening to Mahler: “Like Mahler, my childhood, too, was full of death experiences. My mother died giving birth to me. My father was sent to the war front to be slaughtered in a Nazi punishment battalion.”

Young Christoph was sent to live with a grandmother, but soon they were forced to flee from the Soviet Army’s onslaught: “After a year of flight, she, too, died and I was left a small boy, alone in a refugee camp. So death was all around me and, finally, in myself when I nearly died of typhus.”

He was rescued by Wallydore Eschenbach, a cousin of his mother’s. But his wartime trauma had stunned him into muteness, which lasted almost a year: “The dark impressions, compressed into this small amount of past, were so heavy that a fierce depression closed my soul.”

His redemption lay in music: “My guardian mother asked me a question regarding the wondrous music I heard her play every night and teach every day: ‘Do you want to express yourself in this very music?’ And a very first word came from my lips: ‘Yes.’ ”

He eventually took his adoptive family’s surname—and its passion for music.

While Eschenbach’s tenure will see plenty of modern music, he has been hired in large part to make a return to the core Austro-Germanic symphonic literature—principally Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms—that many felt Leonard Slatkin had slighted.

“Programmatically, I see in the last years a lack of the classical repertoire,” says Eschenbach. As in his previous posts in the United States and Europe, he will continue to knock dust off those classics. Beethoven symphonies, he says, “have to be relentless, in a way, and dramatic and not at all pompous, not at all ponderous.”

This will not be a strain for Eschenbach. “I love drama,” he says. “I think if I wouldn’t have been a musician, I would have been an actor.”

In rehearsal and performance, he says, spontaneity is “totally important. I don’t want the orchestra to be a gray mass. I want them to show personality and give musical opinions not by word but by playing.”

A brass player who’s worked with Eschenbach says there’s “not much chitchat” during rehearsal. But when he gets what he wants from players, he can be ebullient, as illustrated in the PBS film: “Now it’s the right sound. Triumphant! Great! Brilliant! Big! Joyful! Bliss! Heaven! Everything! Thank you very much.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 12/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles