NSO's Promising Date With Christoph Eschenbach

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

In January, one of the Philadelphia Inquirer's music critics floated the possibility on his blog that Christoph Eschenbach, who steps down as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in August, would become the next music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Rumors like this tend to fly around any orchestra involved in the wearying, perennial search for a new leader -- as the NSO will be during the two-year interim tenure of its next principal conductor, Iv¿n Fischer. Every conductor who takes the podium at the Kennedy Center in the coming season may be receiving extra scrutiny.

But the rumor mill was certainly fueled by the orchestra's addition of a concert, at rather short notice, on Tuesday night: a benefit for its newly expanded Young Soloists' Competition, conducted by Eschenbach.

The 68-year-old German had not conducted the NSO since the early 1990s. In the years since, he has built up the Houston Symphony, risen to the heights of the Orchestre de Paris and Philadelphia, and there, to a certain extent, has run aground. His relationship with the Philadelphia musicians evidently failed to blossom, and it was mutually decided not to extend his contract. Nor is he renewing his Paris contract, which expires in 2010. All this makes him a most eligible bachelor from the NSO's perspective: someone with international experience and renown who has, to date, seemed to flourish best on a slightly smaller stage.

In the courtship ritual of an orchestra and a music director, it is hard to say just how much a single blind date of this kind may or may not mean, but it can be entertaining to watch. Sometimes the parties involved show the pressure -- as Eschenbach did to some extent in 2000, when he made a similar appearance with the New York Philharmonic before the orchestra opted for Lorin Maazel. Sometimes they seem to hit it off. Tuesday night's concert appeared to fall into the latter category: Both sides were eager to show off for each other, and both rose to the occasion. The result was a feel-good evening.

For an event raising money for young artists, Eschenbach brought in a young protege of his own, Erik Schumann, as soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. It was perhaps his least successful choice of the evening. Schumann's sound was slight, with a touch of roughness, like a cat's tongue, not off-putting but not always incisive. His fingerwork left something to be desired, and his playing in places -- particularly in the transition from the second to the third movement -- conveyed a sense of duty rather than mastery.

Eschenbach, by contrast, was the cat himself, full of cream, enjoying himself with a feline's slightly aloof, slightly sinuous manner. His mien on the podium has something of a mystic's air, a kind of New Agey spirituality that is the antithesis of Leonard Slatkin's scrubbed all-American athleticism. In the Tchaikovsky, he buoyed the orchestra even as he reined it in, offering rubatos that were at times willful, almost suspending the music altogether in the second movement, wallowing in the pleasure of control.

He is not always a deep conductor, but he knows how to get a certain effect -- and there was no question that the orchestra responded. In Brahms's First Symphony, when conductor and orchestra got to dance alone for the first time, there were even sparks. The strings sang (with concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef silvery and radiant in her solo passage at the end of the third movement); the winds did their best to draw into line; the basses could barely mask their eagerness in the intermezzo. And you could hear the horns gathering themselves with all the ability they could muster at their wistful fourth-movement call, coarsening slightly at the ends of phrases but holding the line that Eschenbach asked of them. And when the orchestra plunged in after the introduction of the famous theme, there was an electric energy to its forte

A first date comes before each partner has discovered the other's baggage, the other's weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Both sides had them on Tuesday night, but they didn't yet matter. If this was indeed a first date with an eye toward a longer relationship, one could imagine that there would be a second one. And if it wasn't, it was at the very least a fine Brahms First.

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