A Tale of Two Conductors
Fischer Takes Helm in the Shadow of Eschenbach

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tonight, Iván Fischer officially begins his two-year stint as principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra with a performance of Mahler's sprawling, epic Third Symphony. By rights, expectations should be running high. One of the highlights of the musical year to date was Fischer's Mahler Second with the NSO in April.

Fischer comes in with European flair (he is Hungarian), fresh ideas, a lot of respect from the music world, and a reputation in the States that is not yet quite as big as he deserves. In short, he has excellent qualifications to be a music director -- the same qualifications as, say, Manfred Honeck or Jaap van Zweden, two little-known Europeans who are enjoying rapturous honeymoons in brand-new positions as music directors of the Pittsburgh and Dallas symphonies respectively.

But Fischer's arrival has been overshadowed by the National Symphony's recent announcement of its next, European-born, well-known music director: Christoph Eschenbach.

Officially, this shouldn't matter. For one thing, Eschenbach doesn't take over until 2010, and the next two seasons, under Fischer, are already programmed. For another, Fischer wasn't exactly passed over. He was by all accounts very much in the running for the job, but he and the NSO were unable to come to an agreement, so he was named principal conductor and the music director search continued.

Yet it's hard to shake a sense that Fischer will be in some sense a lame duck as the orchestra looks ahead to the start of a more permanent new relationship.

After an orchestra names a new music director, there is always a long waiting period until the designate actually takes over. This period allows the media time to wring their hands and bewail a missed opportunity -- generally, the chance to snare someone younger and unknown. The elusive holy grail of music directors is a young, hip, charismatic figure who will lead the organization in unexpected directions and program a lot of new music. The paradigm used to be Simon Rattle; now that he's ensconced at the Berlin Philharmonic (though Philadelphia keeps dreaming, unrealistically, that he'll be free), it's the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, who will be 28 when he takes over the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.

But though critics champion new music, wanting orchestras to play a part in the contemporary world rather than being merely a repository for the past, it is not necessarily what core classical audiences want. It's notable that some of the most successful recent music-director appointments have been not hip Americans, but more middle-of-the-road Europeans: Honeck, van Zweden, or Osmo Vanska at the Minnesota Orchestra, who, himself a composer, has gained attention for, of all things, yet another recorded cycle of the Beethoven symphonies (which is really worth hearing).

Just as strikingly, many people who fit the critics' checklist -- David Robertson in St. Louis or Robert Spano in Atlanta or even, yes, Leonard Slatkin in Washington and now Detroit, all of whom began as hot young Americans championing new music and a populist, talk-to-the-audience approach -- are not doing as well as they were supposed to. By this token, Fischer would appear to be an ideal music director candidate.

Eschenbach is not exactly chopped liver. There is a sense of letdown, for a regular observer, in getting such a known quantity. Eschenbach does come with a certain maverick flair -- a colleague, not an autocrat, who favors nontraditional dress and plays chamber music with his musicians -- but he will be 70 when he takes over, and his musical tastes are known.

He is certainly capable of offering concerts that are superficial, flaccid or even distracted. The trick with him lies in that elusive quantity, personal chemistry: He appears not to have had it with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he had it in spades with the Houston Symphony, and he and the NSO are both very much hoping he has it with them. The orchestra is hoping to rediscover the energy they got from Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom Eschenbach has some striking similarities: Both were crack instrumental soloists who were less technically gifted as conductors; both were able to communicate great personal warmth that to many people outweighs the occasional musical foible.

Fischer is not as warm and cuddly. But he is an excellent conductor with some of the practical skills needed in this job. Having kick-started his career by founding his own orchestra, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, he understands about things such as fundraising and building an audience. "When programming," he said in a conversation this spring, "you have to think of what the audience wants. The orchestra is there to serve the community. It is not a self-contained thing, feeding on itself."

He is certainly in a privileged position in Budapest, which may have been a reason he was unwilling to leave. Free of the constraints of American union contracts, he can rehearse as long as he wants, and all of his musicians are on limited contracts rather than enjoying lifelong tenure. Not that he is complacent.

"I want to electrify the NSO," he said in April. "You have to make each concert an event. Then ticket sales will go up themselves. We will see what I can do in two years."

The NSO, Fischer and Eschenbach have all said that they hope the principal conductor arrangement will continue when these two years are up. But certainly, even as he gears up for three consecutive weeks of programs in Washington, the NSO is no longer really "his" orchestra. And listening again to his recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 2, made with his Budapest orchestra, one can't help but think that he would have been an ideal choice as music director. If he decides he wants to take the plunge into an American music directorship after all, some other orchestra may well snap him up.

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