And there’s also no question that his commitment is having an effect on the orchestra.
“I’m so appreciative of how invested he is emotionally in every piece that we play,” says Marissa Regni, the orchestra’s principal second violinist. “Whether or not you agree with his interpretation, his heart is just in every note. It’s very inspiring.”
“I definitely think morale is the highest it’s been at least since I’ve been here,” says Nurit Bar-Josef, the orchestra’s concertmaster, who came to the NSO in 2001. “He’s done really good things for us.”
Indeed, there’s a transformation taking place at the NSO. A conductor who was widely viewed as damaged goods when he arrived in 2010, and an orchestra not generally ranked as one of the United States’ marquee ensembles, seem to be embarked on a happy marriage, with a sense of optimism about the future. And some of the changes that are happening will have a profound effect on how the orchestra sounds for years to come.
The changes are relatively subtle. Eschenbach, 72, isn’t the type to try out new kinds of performances, banter with the audience or think up attention-grabbing variations on the standard concert format. His musical passions are meat-and-potatoes orchestral fare: Beethoven, Strauss, Schumann. “I think what Maestro Eschenbach brings to this orchestra is deep knowledge of Germanic repertoire,” says Lambert Orkis, the NSO’s pianist. It’s not just the NSO that’s affected by Eschenbach’s tastes; the conductor is also music director of the Kennedy Center, and this spring’s festival called “The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna” — which sounded like a festival of music that orchestras play all the time — reflected Eschenbach’s input.
But he leavens his musical diet with unexpected quirks: contemporary European composers such as Jorg Widmann; or a dance suite from Bernstein’s “West Side Story” on the orchestra’s first recording in years, which Orkis calls “one of the very best that we have done” (and, he adds, “I had the privilege of playing it with Bernstein”).
And in his own way, he’s throwing himself wholly into reanimating the orchestra: rehearsing energetically, playing chamber concerts with his musicians, going to fund-raising events with patrons. This last is a part of the job in the United States that most European music directors tend to loathe, but Eschenbach embraces it: “I meet very interesting people,” he says. People tend to respond in kind. “Our board is in love,” says the orchestra’s executive director, Rita Shapiro.