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Can Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra give each other a fresh start?

Christoph Eschenbach is the latest conductor to take the podium before the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.

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By Anne Midgette
Sunday, September 26, 2010

Stifling heat has clamped down overthe green landscape of Ravinia, the open-air venue where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been giving summer concerts for 74 years.

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But the musicians sit in air-conditioned splendor in a hall across the lawn, on a stage not big enough to contain them all properly, ready to rehearse. They're dressed like students, in baggy khaki cargo shorts, Tevas and T-shirts. Pauses in the music are filled with a gentle hum of conversation, so that conductor Christoph Eschenbach keeps having to shush them like a patient schoolteacher. With a "tut-tut" of his baton, he restores order and starts the music, a gorgeous wave of sound. At a rehearsal, the music should be great but not too great: You want to save something for the concert. But Eschenbach doesn't want even a trial run to be anything less than it can be.

A small man with sharp but fluid movements, Eschenbach stands on the podium with an air of contained caution, like a slightly timid species of wild animal. He was the music director at Ravinia for 11 years, leading this orchestra, but his focus right now is not on the players. It is on the soprano soloist a few paces away from him. Rather than trying to command her, he turns his intensity inward, making himself almost invisible, conveying the idea that she is the most important thing in the room. She's Renée Fleming, America's sweetheart soprano, her face framed in honey-colored scrolls of hair. Even the orchestra's seen-it-all musicians call her The Beautiful Voice. And from the moment she came onstage, she has been Eschenbach's charge, his pride. "Gorgeous voice," he said, by way of presenting her to the orchestra, touching her gently on the shoulder, his face wreathed in the smile of a father basking in his child's achievements.

He and Fleming first met in 1988 in Houston, when she, at the beginning of her career, was called in as a last-minute replacement to play the Countess in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." Eschenbach, making his debut with the Houston Grand Opera, spotted something special and worked with her on the role every day -- once a common way for a conductor to interact with a singer, today almost unheard of in an era of overplanned schedules. Now, she's famous, their bond is tighter than ever, and they're standing at the center of the music together.

They're performing Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs," a calling card for Fleming and Eschenbach, who have explored Strauss together frequently. They recently recorded the cycle and were set to perform it at the gala on Sept. 25 marking Eschenbach's inauguration as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.

It's only a rehearsal of a piece everyone onstage knows well. But Eschenbach won't let it feel routine. He stands over Fleming on the podium, arms outstretched, as if sheltering her, physically creating a space in which she can perform. She turns to face him and sings phrase after phrase into his face. He looks down into her eyes. They are separated by only a foot or two, maybe less; the space between them crackles. They are locked together, in front of the hundred-odd players, in something so profoundly intimate that watching seems almost like spying. When they stop the music and speak, it is in inaudible half-whispers: for each other alone.

It's almost naive, for a conductor to lose himself so completely. Sure, the music is gorgeous. But this is a workplace. It isn't supposed to be quite so intimate, so naked, so personal. For some professional musicians, this kind of approach represents an unrealistically romantic vision, a rosy idea of music as transcendent and magical.

But it's exactly this, this naivete of believing in the music at all costs, that is a hallmark of Christoph Eschenbach. It's an attitude that has helped him build a star reputation in the conducting world -- and has also threatened to be his undoing. Some have called his conducting inspiring; others dismiss it as jejune. Now, as he prepares to take the helm of Washington's struggling and only nominally "national" orchestra, the question is whether he can make the NSO, and its audience, believe in him.

***

There's a reason Eschenbach has such a passionate attachment to music. In a way, it saved his life.

He was born in Breslau, Germany (Wroclaw in present-day Poland), in February 1940, during a winter when the world was falling apart. Germany had invaded Poland and begun its march across Europe. His mother died giving birth to him. A few years later his father, Heribert Ringmann, a musicologist and an opponent of the regime, was sent to the front in a so-called punishment battalion, where people who had been arrested could serve out part of their sentences. Or they could, like Ringmann, be killed.

A grandmother took the orphaned boy in. Or rather, she took him out, because after the war ended in 1945, Breslau was disputed territory. The Russians took control, and grandmother and grandson left the area. The Russians left; the two returned. The Poles came; they left again. They ricocheted around Central Europe before landing in Mecklenburg, Germany, at a refugee camp ravaged by typhus during the worst winter of the century. The camp's doctor died. The boy's grandmother died. "I was practically the last survivor, of 60 people there in the one room," he says.


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