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NSO's Choice Tips the Scales Of Emotion

Whether from his critics or from the orchestra that he's conducting, Christoph Eschenbach always seems to draw an emotional response.
Whether from his critics or from the orchestra that he's conducting, Christoph Eschenbach always seems to draw an emotional response. (By Chris Lee)

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008

Christoph Eschenbach comes to the National Symphony Orchestra as a uniter: the unanimous choice of the search committee, prepared to lead the orchestra into the future.

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But in the past, he has tended to divide opinion. People love him or hate him.

Take his recent concert with the Orchestre National de Paris -- where he has been music director since 2000 -- in London a couple of weeks ago. "It was beautifully conducted and played to perfection," said Tim Ashley in the Guardian. "Reasonable youth orchestra standard," said Richard Morrison, damningly, in the Times, complaining about the performance's "raggedness."

Or take the responses of musicians who have played under him.

"He brought me to an artistry that I had only dreamed of," says William VerMeulen, a horn player with the Houston Symphony. The players, he said, "were constantly watching with almost a joyful curiosity where he was going to take this piece tonight. We had been trained to be outside the box, to think differently. It was a different piece every night. Totally stimulating." Eschenbach left Houston in 1999; VerMeulen says he thinks of him every day.

But a musician with the Philadelphia Orchestra, who requested anonymity when she spoke to Philadelphia Magazine for an article in June, complained, "He just kept stretching things. Trying to pull more emotion out of them. I believe emotion is more important than perfection in music, but there were times when things almost fell apart during a performance because he would change things so much. He'd blank out, almost, because he was enjoying the music so much. And then he'd come back, and you could tell he was thinking, 'Where are we?' And all of us would be trying to get it back together."

"Obviously we're not going to get somebody that everybody will like or dislike," says Marissa Regni, a violinist with the orchestra, who chaired the NSO search committee. The five musicians on the 15-member search committee led a number of focus groups with other members of the orchestra during their search. The most illuminating part of the process, she said, was that "nobody could agree on anything."

"In the end," she said, "our job is to find somebody who will be a good fit with our orchestra."

The announcement Thursday that Eschenbach will take over in 2010 as music director of the National Symphony and the Kennedy Center has been greeted with predictable glee by the local parties involved. People in the orchestra, Regni says, "seemed happy and relieved" that the 3 1/2 -year search to replace Leonard Slatkin is finally over.

Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's president, says he is happy to formalize a relationship that will allow the NSO conductor to take a stronger role in the musical component of all Kennedy Center activities. He notes that in last year's China festival, the symphonic portion of the program was the weakest part. "Quite honestly," he says, "it would have been wonderful to have a conductor and musical eminence involved with that."

And having someone of Eschenbach's renown, says Rita Shapiro, the orchestra's executive director, is "something we believe will attract top musicians" to help the orchestra continue to build, starting with auditions for a violinist in November.

"It's a coup" for the NSO, says former Philadelphia Orchestra president Joe Kluger, "to get someone of his stature."

But exactly what is that stature? There again, opinions divide. When it was announced in 2001 that Eschenbach had gotten the position in Philadelphia, Peter Dobrin, one of the Philadelphia Inquirer's music critics, wrote that there were two schools of thought about his appointment: "those who say Eschenbach is a second-rate conductor now being forced to the top by a vacuum; and another group claiming him as a major talent, long overlooked, now being forced to the top by a vacuum."

Eschenbach is an enigmatic figure. Born in 1940, orphaned during World War II -- his father was a musicologist who was openly critical of the Nazis -- he was found by a cousin in a refugee camp after the war, so profoundly traumatized that for more than a year he was mute. While he rose to prominence as a concert pianist, his musical epiphany occurred at 11, when he heard Wilhelm Furtwängler conduct Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth symphonies.

Nobody denies that he is smart, personally warm, committed. What divides people, be they critics or players, is the substance of his work. Are his performances inspired journeys into the emotional depths? Or are they vague and spacey? Over the years, in the concert hall, I have heard him offer both: sloppy near-buffoonery with the New York Philharmonic, intense if slightly callow Mahler with Philadelphia.

He does, however, represent one thing: a point of view. His performances may be unusual, but they are never impersonal or anonymous. For an orchestra whose last music director specialized in a more athletic, less emotional repertory, Eschenbach's more emotional commitment may be just what the doctor ordered.

"I just want to make sure you're happy," he told the musicians at the Philadelphia Orchestra when he started there, according to Roberto Diaz, a former violist with the orchestra and now president of the Curtis Institute in that city. Diaz was a supporter of Eschenbach but wasn't sure that was the right approach. "Sometimes if you spend a lot of time and effort trying to build consensus," he says, "chances are that things may unravel more than they come together."

But the NSO is ready to have someone help it find the magic again. If the chemistry that seemed to take hold during Eschenbach's first concert with the orchestra in February holds, it is possible that this conductor and orchestra could find consensus after all.

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