Christoph Eschenbach to Lead National Symphony

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

Ending months of speculation and years of searching, the National Symphony Orchestra has chosen its next music director: the German conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach, best known for his recent stint as head of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

His designation, announced last night by Kennedy Center officials, comes with a twist: Eschenbach, 68, also will hold the newly created title of music director of the Kennedy Center. In this role, he will work closely with the center's president, Michael M. Kaiser, and the center's programmers on the kinds of interdisciplinary, themed festivals and projects that have become something of a Kennedy Center hallmark.

Eschenbach will officially start in the 2010-11 season, after Ivan Fischer's two-year stint as principal conductor. However, he will function as music director designate in 2009-10, and he will begin working with the orchestra even earlier. In November, he is coming to Washington to start hearing auditions for the eight vacancies the orchestra has in its 100-member roster. Eschenbach's contract lasts through the 2013-14 season.

Eschenbach's association with the NSO goes back to the 1970s, but he had not conducted the orchestra since the early 1990s when he came in for a hastily arranged test run earlier this year. "My impression was very, very warm and artistically satisfying," he said of his single concert with the orchestra in February. "I saw that there are many possibilities where things can be developed even further."

"The consummate musicianship that Christoph Eschenbach brings will be a source of great inspiration to all of us," said Rita Shapiro, the NSO's executive director.

To underline the festive mood, the orchestra also is announcing a $5 million gift from Roger and Vicki Sant, longtime orchestra patrons (he is vice chairman of the National Symphony Orchestra Association). This brings to a total of $20 million the couple's gifts for the endowment of the chair Eschenbach will now hold, the Roger and Vicki Sant Endowed Music Director's Chair.

That money will help cover what may well be the extra cost of the conductor's dual position. (In Philadelphia, Eschenbach received $1,586,000 in 2006 and $2,297,000 in 2007, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this year. If he remains in a similar bracket, it represents a step up for the NSO from the $1.1 million-plus it was reported to have paid his predecessor, Leonard Slatkin.)

Eschenbach brings a significant level of international renown to the NSO. He has just left the leadership of one of the most important orchestras in the country (Philadelphia is among the so-called "Big Five," along with New York, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland). He has close connections to a host of big-name artists, such as the soprano Renée Fleming. He has an existing relationship with a recording label, Ondine, and is in talks about recording projects for the NSO, something the orchestra has not done for some time. He has plans to tour with the orchestra.

Speaking by phone from Paris, he said, "I want to make sure that they are internationally more known, as the orchestra of a great city and great country. It is important that people know that in the world."

But Eschenbach also brings considerable baggage. While he has had some noteworthy successes -- his tenure from 1988 to 1999 as music director of the Houston Symphony, in particular, made waves on the American orchestral scene -- they have not always been with the really top orchestras. And behind the glamorous podium appearances there is a faint background hum about sloppy rehearsals, impulsive musical decisions and, perhaps worst, a lack of authority.

The negatives appeared to bubble over during his time in Philadelphia, which culminated in what was advertised as a mutual decision not to extend his contract. In fact, however, the symphony administration told Eschenbach that most of the musicians were dissatisfied with his musical approach. (Eschenbach now counters that this was a "misunderstanding" spread by orchestra executives, and that the Philadelphia musicians have since made a point of showing him their affection. He will tour with that orchestra this coming winter and is scheduled to conduct two subscription programs next season.)

Joe Kluger, who was president of the Philadelphia Orchestra when Eschenbach began there, ascribes some of the problem to Eschenbach's intuitive, impulsive way of making music, a contrast to the technical polish of his predecessor, Wolfgang Sawallisch.

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