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.

"You could absolutely find Christoph taking liberties with tempi," he said. "He would also feel no qualms about one approach on a Thursday night and a different one on a Saturday. For those people who say, 'I want to hear it the same way every night,' I say, 'Buy a recording.' What makes the music business exciting, what makes people want to come to concerts, is the live experience."

But Kluger admits that a number of the musicians "found Christoph's Dionysian approach difficult. It requires them to pay attention in a whole different way. Because you have to follow a leader who's not always clear."

Eschenbach has unexpected strengths. European conductors are supposed to shy away from the more hands-on aspects of American music directorships; not he. "I was rather good at fundraising, as you might know," he says. When one CEO in Philadelphia tried to avoid his solicitation calls, he turned up at the man's office at 7 in the morning.

And while he brings the air of the Old World to an orchestra that is hungry for it, he also represents change and innovation. He has long ago discarded the standard tailsuit in favor of a crisp Nehru jacket; at the Orchestre de Paris, where he is music director until 2010 (many conductors hold simultaneous directorships in Europe and the United States), a fashion house was brought in to design an alternative to the players' traditional formal dress.

Eschenbach has been seen by some as something of a has-been after the Philadelphia episode. For this very reason, the NSO may prove a good fit: a chance for both him and the orchestra to reinvent themselves after periods of what has widely been viewed as stagnation.

The orchestra, after 12 years of Leonard Slatkin's all-American athleticism, seems to have been looking for a more European touch; Fischer, who was the previous leading candidate in its music-director search until he agreed to be principal conductor, is, like Eschenbach, a European maverick. With Eschenbach, the orchestra gets to take a step toward the core European repertoire without altogether rejecting the forward-looking contemporary spirit that Slatkin helped establish.

As for Eschenbach, he has another chance to try a new approach to leading an orchestra, as well as expanding the role of music director in his work with the Kennedy Center.

"The point which finally made me decide with 100 percent enthusiasm to come to Washington," he said, "were these two titles and two opportunities to express myself and express myself through others and with others."

But although he is not a traditional authority figure, he has some ideas in mind.

"Maybe I want to make the sound a bit more profound, warm and deep," he said. But in his rehearsals and concert in February, he found "that from the first minutes of rehearsal to the concert, the sound already changed. It got more warm; it got more deep. The musicians were also longing for it. They told me they were happy that the sound was changing in those two days."

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