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

Wielding the Baton

The National Symphony Orchestra’s music directors have been known as much for their private lives, social climbing, and political battles as for their music making.

Rotterdam-born Hans Kindler left the first-chair cellist job at the Philadelphia Orchestra to found the NSO and led it for 18 years, from the depths of the Depression into the beginning of the boom following World War II. He gets points for perseverance but is remembered as an abrasive presence on and off the podium.

Another cellist, Howard Mitchell picked up the baton and began a 20-year tenure that included the NSO’s first international tour, to Latin America. But his era is perhaps best known for its mediocrity—“the artistic nadir of the National Symphony,” wrote critic and author Ted Libbey. Mitchell seemed as interested in the party circuit as in the rehearsal hall.

Antal Doráti, a Budapest native who studied with Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, rode to the rescue after a virtually bankrupt NSO was hit with a musicians’ strike. He’s credited with rebuilding the orchestra into a serious group of talented performers and putting the NSO on its current professional path.

Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the 20th century’s top cellists, became leader of the NSO three years after emigrating from the Soviet Union in response to decades of official harassment prompted by his outspoken calls for artistic freedom. Appointment of the irrepressible “Slava” was as much a political statement as a shrewd musical move.

A child of musical Hollywood, Leonard Slatkin passed through Washington as he orbited outside the orchestral Big Five, although he led the Cleveland Orchestra’s summer Blossom Festival. Slatkin seemed to lose interest during his National Symphony tenure, perhaps distracted by fallout from an affair with a much younger British musician, including graphic e-mails disclosed in her divorce case.

Iván Fischer, interim National Symphony Orchestra chief as principal conductor, remains anchored in his native Hungary, where he founded the innovative Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983 and is still its head. His focus there has meant only brief leadership attachments elsewhere, including three years as music director of the Opéra National de Lyon. 

Eschenbach at a Glance

1940: Born Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland).

1946: Rescued by his mother’s cousin from refugee camp in Mecklenburg, East Germany.

1948: Settles with adoptive family in West Germany.

1951: Awarded first prize, Steinway Young Pianist competition in Germany.

1955: Enters music school, Cologne.

1962: Wins German Radio Competition, Munich.

1964: First recording (Mozart) with Deutsche Grammophon.

1965: Wins Clara Haskil International Piano Competition, Switzerland.

1967: First conducting lessons with George Szell.

1969: US debut as pianist, Cleveland Orchestra with Szell.

1972: Conducting debut (Bruckner’s Third Symphony), Hamburg.

1975: US conducting debut, San Francisco.

1978: Named music director, Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Ludwigshafen, Germany.

1982–86: Chief conductor, Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich.

1988–99: Music director, Houston Symphony.

1994–2003: Music director, Ravinia Festival, summer home of Chicago Symphony.

1998–2004: Chief conductor, NDR (North German Radio) Symphony, Hamburg.

1999–2002: Artistic director, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival.

2000–10: Music director, Orchestre de Paris.

2003–08: Music director, Philadelphia Orchestra.

2005:Conducts his first cycle of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris.

2008: Engaged as music director, National Symphony Orchestra, for three seasons, beginning 2010–11.

This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.


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