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

Most of America’s Big Five orchestras have traditions of engaging European conductors. From the late 1840s until Leonard Bernstein took over in 1958, the New York Philharmonic had only foreign-born music directors. James Levine, who took the helm of the Boston Symphony in 2004, was that orchestra’s first US-born music director.

Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Kallberg says Eschenbach fits superbly into this line of émigrés: “He is a fantastic conductor. He brings a kind of freedom to the tempos that’s part of the important history of conducting . . . something that is a remarkable thing for audiences these days to experience.” Without risks, Kallberg says, “you kind of get tedium in the end.”

Although people from all quarters of the NSO speak courteously of Slatkin, who has moved on to the Detroit Symphony, Eschenbach’s selection was a reaction to what was seen as Slatkin’s slighting of the 19th-century European heart of the standard symphonic repertoire.

“You’re always reacting to what you had before,” says search-committee member Alice Kogan Weinreb, an NSO flutist for 30 years. She recalls the “wonderful, exciting years” in which the Soviet-era dissident Mstislav Rostropovich, perhaps the best cellist of his time, led the NSO. His readings of Russian classics were stunning, but ventures into the remainder of the repertoire could be ho-hum.

Under Slatkin, Weinreb says, “we felt like an American orchestra,” which is not necessarily how a major US orchestra wants to be categorized. “We were looking for a European grounding . . . and we felt we wanted that to be an artistic strength.”

Slatkin, 65, suffered a heart attack in early November while conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic but is expected to be back on the podium soon. He is scheduled for a guest-conductor engagement with the NSO in January, the first since his departure from Washington.

When Eschenbach took over the Houston Symphony in the late 1980s, he called it a “sleeping beauty.” After three days of working with the NSO in August, he said the Washington ensemble was already a “beauty” that needed no awakening, just some unifying leadership.

Working the NSO through a number of classical selections “confirmed that the orchestra is very responsive and reacts very, very quickly to what I say,” Eschenbach says. The NSO is capable of quick changes in timbre or creation of new musical phrasing—“all these good things.”

Marissa Regni, NSO principal second violinist and cochair of the search committee, says the get-acquainted rehearsals went superbly. “He comes out and he says, ‘I’m so happy to be here—let’s just make music together,’ ” Regni recalls. “That’s automatically to me ‘Okay, we’re a team or a family, we’re collaborators.’ It’s not ‘I’m the great maestro, and you are my subjects.’ There was suddenly this cohesiveness. All of a sudden we were all coming together as a unit.”

Regni was one of five NSO musicians on the search committee for the entire process. During the hunt, they had met privately with Eschenbach. “We talked about everything”—repertoire, touring, recording, modern media—recalls Regni. Also on the committee were six members of the NSO board of directors, led by former NSO chairman Ann Jordan, who shared cochair duties with Regni; two members of the orchestra’s administration; and Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser.

During Eschenbach’s quiet visits to Washington over the past year, he took part in auditions for several orchestra positions and posed for a photograph that will be used in NSO promotions. He taped a conversation with the NSO’s director of artistic planning, Nigel Boon, that will be posted as a series on the orchestra’s Web site (kennedy-center.org/nso) when the repertoire and soloists for the 2010–11 season are announced in March.

Eschenbach arrived here in August direct from his annual visit to Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, which he led from 1994 through 2003. It was at Ravinia that Eschenbach’s week included conducting, performing, accompanying, coaching, and page turning for Tzimon Barto, an American pianist whose career Eschenbach has championed. He also did some light donor maintenance.

NSO executive director Shapiro says Eschenbach’s “deep knowledge of how the American orchestra system works was definitely a plus.” Translation: Eschenbach understands fundraising. Roger Sant says board members on the search committee were pleased to learn of Eschenbach’s willingness to help raise money: “For all of us, that’s music.”

Although slight in stature, Eschenbach has a podium presence in his Chinese-style jackets—black for the main symphony season and white for summer engagements.

He has an intense gaze—“amazing eyes,” says NSO flutist Alice Weinreb—and a stride that belies his 69 years. Eschenbach is still younger than Lorin Maazel was in 2002, when he began to lead the New York Philharmonic, a job for which Eschenbach was also in contention.

Eschenbach was already so booked up when the Washington deal was struck that he will lead only one series of concerts in the orchestra’s current season, performances of Verdi’s “Requiem” March 11 through 13. He takes up his full duties with the launch of the 2010–11 season at a September 25 gala.

For the main three years of his contract, Eschenbach is to conduct ten subscription series yearly, or just fewer than half of the orchestra’s 21 three-concert classical runs.

Eschenbach’s salary hasn’t been disclosed. Arts-administration sources have speculated that the Kennedy Center music-director post was added in part to justify a multimillion-dollar pay package. KenCen president Kaiser defended this unspecified part of the salary by saying that with Eschenbach “you have a potential to bring in more resources.”

Eschenbach certainly will be paid more than Slatkin, sources say. “It’s a step up—I’ll at least talk about that,” says Sant. “We knew that a person with experience was going to take some money, and so we tried to do a little helping on the board side”—including his own $5-million fillip. “Music was number one, and everything else was a very distant second,” says Sant, a founder of Applied Energy Sources, which as AES became one of the world’s largest independent producers of power.

In 2006, according to the most recently available IRS reports, Philadelphia paid Eschenbach’s business arm, Christoforo Inc., $2.3 million, while Slatkin was paid $1.2 million by the Kennedy Center.

Since 1986, the NSO has been an “artistic affiliate” of the Kennedy Center. John Bence, with the League of American Orchestras, says only one other major US orchestra has a similar arrangement, the Atlanta Symphony, which is allied with the Woodruff Arts Center.

Eschenbach’s role in Kennedy Center programming beyond the NSO is still being worked out, but he describes the multiple-hall venue as “a very good forum for interplay of the arts—music, fine arts, dance.”

Kennedy Center president Kaiser says Eschenbach first will advise on the center’s international festivals, one of which is planned for each of the three years of the conductor’s initial contract. “We really need advice and discussion on the classical-music component” of the festivals, says Kaiser. “Those have been the weakest part.” 

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