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

Glimpses of Eschenbach’s style and sound are available in videos, DVDs, and recordings. His conducting style ranges widely. A YouTube video shows him leading the Orchestre de Paris through almost all of Ravel’s “Boléro” with arms at his side and signaling instrumental entrances only with a tilt of his head or a widening of his dark eyes.

“I have eyes—what should I do with eyes other than use them?” he says. They are used repeatedly as a design element on his Web site, christoph-eschenbach.com.

Eschenbach can be flamboyant, even reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein, one of his mentors. Eschenbach has acknowledged the primacy in his training of two maestros, Herbert von Karajan, the electrifying Austrian, and George Szell, the Old World transplant to Cleveland.

“Szell drew while Karajan painted,” Eschenbach says on his Web site. Is Eschenbach a drawer or painter? “I do both,” he replies.

NSO bassist Barber agrees that Eschenbach can be both sorts of artist and calls his conducting “an interesting paradox.”

“When he’s on the podium, there’s a burning intensity, especially in his eyes,” Barber says. “But at the same time there’s a physical restraint to what he’s doing.”

The first major conductor Eschenbach saw, when he was ten years old, was Wilhelm Furtwängler: “I was so impressed that a man . . . can make musicians play like devils and angels in the same time.” When he told his adoptive mother he wanted to be a conductor, she said he would have to take up an orchestral instrument. “And the next week I had a violin and a violin teacher.” He was already an accomplished keyboard performer.

There may be reflections of Eschenbach’s early years in the way he approaches professional relationships.

Barber says that during repeated exposure to Eschenbach over two decades, he has come to believe that “when he feels safe, he opens up a lot. I do get the sense that if things are not safe and comfortable, then he withdraws.”

Says the NSO’s Sant: “He’s an odd combination of shy and gregarious.”

Eschenbach has spoken about his need for intense reflection. “I make the time, and I must have it every day, the time where I create a space around me and in me where I can meditate freely—above thinking,” he says.

One group Eschenbach seems to feel comfortable with is modern composers, and the feeling—intense admiration, actually—is reciprocated.

“He can really reach into the center and core of a piece,” says Augusta Read Thomas, whose work has been played by the NSO and conducted by Eschenbach. “I always sit on the edge of my seat thinking, ‘What’s coming next?’ ” Eschenbach is expected to conduct the US premiere of Thomas’s Violin Concerto No. 3, an NSO co-commission, in spring 2011, with Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist.

Jennifer Higdon, whose new piano concerto the NSO will premiere in December, says of Eschenbach that “there’s something soulful about him that is wonderful. I’m always impressed by his gentleness. You take away a different impression from every conductor, but he cares, he listens.” Eschenbach took Higdon’s Concerto 4-3, a joyful Baroque/jazz/country triple concerto, to Ravinia after leading a performance of it with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Although the NSO will continue to commission American pieces through the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, Eschenbach is expected to program contemporary European composers, too.

“He has very, very wide tastes,” says NSO artistic-planning chief Boon.

Eschenbach says he plans to “make a statement” in the programming of his first subscription concerts as music director. It likely will include one of Eschenbach’s favorite modern works, a piece by Matthias Pintscher—a 38-year-old German who has been called “a radical conservative”—as well as a classical warhorse.

NSO flutist Alice Weinreb says Eschenbach, who was in and out of the nation’s capital throughout the election season of 2008, “seemed thrilled with the idea of being in Washington—that this should be a great orchestra in a great town in a great country.”

Eschenbach was pleased by the election of Barack Obama. “I like to be part of politics if the politics is human,” he says, “and to be frank, I see that with your—our, because I’m a resident of this country—President.”

During his 11 years in Houston from 1988 to 1999, Eschenbach got along well in the back yard of the Bush dynasty. Instead of the dustup in Philadelphia, the NSO search committee seemed to pay more attention to Eschenbach’s widely praised tenure with the Houston Symphony, where players on the Washington committee have friends.

“A lot of them speak of it as the most exciting musical experience of their lives,” says Weinreb. “They just were ecstatic about him. There was no question that musically it was a perfect match for them. It was what they wanted and needed at the time. That’s what our dream is—that it will be that kind of collaboration.”

When Eschenbach announced in 1997 that he would leave the Houston podium, Houston Chronicle music critic Charles Ward said the departing maestro had “built the artistic standards of the orchestra far beyond anyone’s expectations.”

Betsy Cook Weber, director of undergraduate choral studies at the University of Houston and former associate director of the Houston Symphony Chorus, says she reveres Eschenbach as “a profound artist.”

“He always had an original view of the music,” Weber says. “There was always something interesting happening with Christoph. Sometimes it would be a little weird, but it was never, ever boring and usually it was simply riveting.”

As for his sometimes unorthodox approach, Weber recalls a Houston wind player who at Eschenbach’s departure remarked: “We all would follow him off a cliff—and sometimes we did.”

Elyse Lanier, wife of a former Houston mayor and a social mover and shaker, recalls turning to Eschenbach at a small dinner and asking: If he could do anything, what would it be?

Take the symphony to the top of one of Houston’s skyscrapers, Eschenbach said. Before the night was over, Lanier had set the wheels in motion for Power of Houston, an arts extravaganza that saw the city’s skyline bathed in a brilliant light show that accompanied music and dance performances.

Such spectaculars no doubt will occur here. One of Eschenbach’s favorite writers, the 20th-century Austrian Thomas Bernhard, says early in his memoirs, “As in everything else I undertook, I persevered to the very limit.”

The same might be said of Eschenbach. 

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