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Making Musicians Play Like Devils & Angels
Comments () | Published December 1, 2009

Eschenbach has what Richard Barber, NSO assistant principal bass and a search-committee member, calls “a sonic vision” that could help the orchestra develop what many of the finest ensembles have—a distinct sound. “Almost the tone of someone’s voice,” Barber says.

“We felt that our sound had become somewhat diffuse and not as cohesive,” he says. “It was being talked about openly.” The musicians, Barber says, are looking to develop a sound that is “conductor-proof” for the half of the concerts that are led by visiting conductors. Otherwise, some authoritarian guests try to force their preferred sound onto the orchestra for the brief time that they’re in town.

Eschenbach comes with strong references from well-known collaborators. Soprano Renée Fleming, who’s worked with Eschenbach more than 20 years, praises his humility and instincts. “He doesn’t lead ever with his ego. That’s probably, right there, something unusual,” Fleming told me in an interview after she and Eschenbach toured Scandinavia this spring with the Orchestre de Paris.

Pianist Lang Lang told a Playbill interviewer that Eschenbach “is truly special, the most sincere musician I have ever known.” Eschenbach gave Lang Lang a break ten years ago by substituting him into a Ravinia Festival gala for an ailing André Watts. 

Eschenbach can stir controversy. Some critics don’t like his interpretations, especially the sometimes unorthodox tempos, which can range from super-presto to an exaggerated largo—and can vary from rehearsal to performance.

Eschenbach pays the tempo police no mind: “Nothing should be fixed. We don’t put ourselves in boxes as musicians, and we have not swallowed metronomes.”

Although he can drive an orchestra at frenzied speeds, he often favors a slower pace to draw as much emotion as possible from a score. “Quicker tempos tend to court superficiality,” he has said.

With his free tempos, says Jeffrey Kallberg, chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania and pre-concert lecturer for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eschenbach “goes back to what was the normal style of conducting before World War II, which was freely changing tempo.”

In Eschenbach performances ranging across 18 works over the late spring and summer this year, the common denominator was passion and expressivity, whether he was conductor, piano soloist, or accompanist.

As the Los Angeles Philharmonic got to the final “damnation” chords in Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem “Francesca da Rimini” one Sunday afternoon in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Eschenbach drew such intense playing that spontaneous combustion would not have been a surprise.

As the sound died, there was a moment of silence, then an avalanche of applause from the audience. Even Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed, not wholly convinced by Eschenbach’s interpretation, remarked on the electricity. “Eschenbach wanted a crazy speed just past the safety zone for hairpin turns,” Swed wrote. “It was quite a show.”

A similar intensity emerged with the Chicago Symphony and soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg at the Ravinia Festival, the orchestra’s summer home. By the concluding wild ride in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a few licks of flame would not have seemed amiss.

The NSO search focused on such performances and seems to have written off Eschenbach’s rough patch as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, his last major US post before agreeing to become music director of the NSO.

Eschenbach’s five-year tenure, from 2003 to 2008, as music director of what has been known as the Fabulous Philadelphians, was the shortest in the orchestra’s century-plus existence. Eugene Ormandy lasted 44 years (1936–80), and his immediate predecessor, Leopold Stokowski—with whom he overlapped by five years—had the job for 29 (1912–41).

The circumstances of Eschenbach’s departure are clouded, though there’s little doubt his tenure was tumultuous. Eschenbach says he departed voluntarily after leaders of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association lied to him about the players’ desire for him to move on. At issue is whether there was an orchestral vote of confidence in him and, if so, what the result was.

“They said there was a survey of the whole orchestra and more than 80 percent of the orchestra was against me,” Eschenbach says. “I asked the management was that true and was told, ‘Yes, it’s true.’

“It was not true at all. As I found out a little later, this survey never happened.

“There are always a few musicians in the orchestra who are against conductors. This also creates a quite interesting dynamic—but not that percentage, by far not. All of the musicians regretted very, very much that was reported like this.”

The controversy over Eschenbach’s leadership was such that the two classical-music critics of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote dueling columns about whether the maestro should stay or go. One was headlined call it quits: start search now for a harmonious match. The other was keep him: his personal music-making is a treasure.

At the time of Eschenbach’s departure, the orchestra’s president, James Undercofler, was reported as saying: “We had very broad-ranging discussions, and as a result of those discussions came this decision.”

The chairman of the players’ artistic committee, trumpeter David Bilger, told the Inquirer that Eschenbach’s departure was “a bit of a surprise. Most people were expecting the announcement of some kind of extension” of Eschenbach’s tenure.

Whatever the case, Eschenbach got the Philadelphians their first recording contract in ten years and led them on successful tours, including one this year after he officially severed his ties. He also has been invited back for guest conducting.

Might the orchestra now regret Eschenbach’s departure? LA Times critic Mark Swed asked earlier this year if the “financially troubled, leaderless, possibly humbled ‘Fabulous’ Philadelphians have perhaps realized what they lost.”

Eschenbach’s edginess clearly appealed to the NSO’s search committee.

“We didn’t pick anybody safe,” says NSO executive director Rita Shapiro. “He will probably rattle some cages. But that’s what we want.”

That will not be a problem for Eschenbach. “Risk taking with precision is good,” he says. A London critic three years ago, after a Philadelphia Orchestra visit there, called it “Eschenbach’s calculated spontaneity.”

“Music is about freedom,” Eschenbach says—an orchestra should not “play just the result of the last rehearsal. Of course we play the last rehearsal, but on top of it we put ideas which come into reality” during a performance.

“When I study a score, I want to find new things every day in the score. I want this give and take between conductor and orchestra.”

When Eschenbach’s tenure as the NSO’s music director begins next fall, the orchestra will have been without one for two full seasons. The orchestra has fared better than many expected under principal conductor Iván Fischer, who was always considered a fill-in, if only because of a long-range commitment in his native Hungary. But the arrival of a leader with some hope of continuity—and a touch of old-fashioned showmanship—is overdue. 

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