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

By Anne Midgette
Sunday, September 26, 2010; W

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.

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.

Before she died, his grandmother had sent a postcard to a cousin, Wallydore Eschenbach. The postcard took weeks to reach her. She rushed to the camp, only to find it was quarantined; she bribed an official to get the little boy out. By then, Christoph Ringmann, 6 years old, sick with typhus, suffering from skin diseases and lice, was too traumatized to say a word. He did not speak for more than a year.

Lying in bed in his new home in Mecklenburg, he heard his new mother playing the piano through the wall. By day, she taught piano and singing. At night, she played for herself: Bach and Beethoven and Rachmaninoff and Chopin. "I was just mesmerized," Eschenbach says. "Schumann and Bach were my first loves." Schumann can be difficult to bring across, "but first of all she did it very well, and then, I was very complex, you know, inside, so it spoke to me. It moved things in me." Eventually, he was asked whether he would like to play. As he remembers it, he spoke his first word after the long silence: "Yes."

Through music, he says, "I found the way to express myself again."

His foster mother was his first teacher, and his piano talents became formidable. At 11, after he first saw the great Wilhelm Furtwaengler and decided he wanted to be a conductor, she arranged to have the boy start violin lessons so he would have an orchestral instrument under his belt.

He studied piano, along with conducting and violin, at the Hamburg Conservatory. Although he wanted to be a conductor, it was as a pianist that he made a name for himself, bursting onto the scene with wins at Munich's ARD competition and the Clara Haskil competition, and gaining international attention as a concert soloist. But it wasn't quite the expression he was looking for.

"I felt lonely at the piano," Eschenbach says. "I wanted to communicate with people." What he didn't want was to be "alone, you know, with this black animal with the white teeth" -- the piano with its ivory keys. "And I wanted to be, to converse with musicians, musically. And therefore I wanted from so early on to be a conductor."

***

Conductors are supposed to be big, loud, authoritarian. Eschenbach is not. In a field that tends to attract people of healthy egos and dominant personalities, he projects a stillness. He waits. He speaks quietly. At 70, he is less a grand old man than elfin. He wears black clothes, pants creased to a knife-edge, loose shirts with mandarin collars. His bald head gleams in the light. "Ascetic" is a word that comes up a lot when people talk about him. "Monkish" is another.

"There's a beatific quality to him, there's no question," says Ravinia Festival chief executive Welz Kauffman. "But there's also this tremendous sense of humor. And a great love of life."

That's a side of Eschenbach that's harder to unlock. He is gracious but guarded. Fiercely loyal to his friends, profoundly sensitive to criticism, he has learned to protect his public persona. Politely submitting to an interview, he offers a nugget of information, then retreats, to see what effect it has made. His eyes never quite lose their air of anxiety, even when he smiles.

He makes a point of speaking in the language of the country he's in. As music director of the Orchestre de Paris, a position he held from 2000 until this year, he always conducted official conversations in French, and at the beginning of his tenure there, people sometimes had trouble figuring out what he was saying. His English is more secure, his German accent eroding the sentences as if they were soft stone, adding a roughness to his voice.

His main way of communicating, though, is through music. When he conducts, he seems to lose himself, closing his eyes, reaching out his arms, the blood rushing to his head so that his pale skin flushes as if inflamed.

"I don't select pieces for pleasing the audience or pleasing the orchestra," he says. "It's more that if I'm convinced of a piece, I think that I can convince the orchestra and convince the audience, you know?"

To his fans, Eschenbach is one of the greatest conductors in the world, capable of inspiring players and transporting audiences. Some of his detractors say he can't communicate with an orchestra, and his performances are erratic. Others complain he's New Age-y, wanting the music to be a transcendent experience, getting so caught up that he sometimes loses his place in the score during concerts and has to start over again. Yet to John Axelrod, a conductor who studied under Eschenbach (and who will make his debut with the NSO next year), his approach is old-style, "Prussian." In Eschenbach's private lessons, Axelrod was drilled on scores, sitting in front of the maestro and conducting Brahms's Symphony No. 2 in D Major from memory. Eschenbach would stop him at intervals, asking, "What is the second oboe doing now?" and expecting him to sing a note-perfect response -- hardly the tutelage of someone who wants to go only with the emotional flow.

Eschenbach knows about the conflicting opinions of his work. "People either love or hate my playing," he's said. "But, for me, that is a positive thing. You see, music is idiosyncratic, and it should be played in an idiosyncratic way."

He could have said this at almost any time in his career. He could have said it when he was music director of the Houston Symphony in the 1990s, when everyone loved him, or when he was the controversial music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 2000s, when not everybody did. He could have said it when he was testing his conducting chops in Zurich in the 1980s, or when he was a candidate for the music director position with the New York Philharmonic in 2000. But, in fact, he said it in an interview in 1974, when he was one of the hottest young concert pianists to come out of Germany and his ambitions as a conductor were still largely unknown.

***

He's not unknown anymore. For the NSO, landing Eschenbach as music director was something of a coup. It's a good orchestra, but it isn't on a par with the "Big Five" (the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra), traditionally held to be the best in the country. The NSO rarely makes anybody's Top 10 list. As a world-renowned conductor and acclaimed concert pianist, Eschenbach is a step or two up on the classical music food chain.

The relationship between a music director and an orchestra is a famously tricky marriage. Orchestras, despite constant personnel changes, tend to maintain distinct personalities over time. Music directors reign as autocratic tyrants -- George Szell struck fear into musicians' hearts as he shaped the Cleveland Orchestra into a world-class ensemble in the 1950s and '60s -- or lead as first among equals, like the more democratic Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic. The job is to forge an artistic partnership, by conducting (Eschenbach will lead about half of the NSO's subscription concerts in 2010-2011, which is about par for the course), selecting repertory, making sure technical standards are upheld, and supervising the hiring of new players.

A music director also has a civic role. An orchestra is a hugely expensive institution (the NSO's annual operating budget is about $30 million). In Europe, orchestras rely on government subsidies; in the United States, they live on private donations. "As music director," Eschenbach says, "you have to be father, psychologist, diplomat, politician, fundraiser."

Eschenbach thrives on all of these roles. He sends flowers when musicians are sick. He's eager to mentor young players. And he embraces the non-musical aspects of the job (which have driven other European-born conductors away from American music director posts). At the Houston Symphony, where he was music director from 1988 to 1999, he helped improve the struggling orchestra's finances with a capital campaign that raised $42 million. "It involved almost every night to go to another dinner and tell people why music is so good, why is it so important to have an orchestra in the city, and so on," he says. He didn't mind. And it was one of the things that made the NSO take notice. "We are thrilled to know he will be helpful at fundraising," says the Kennedy Center's president, Michael Kaiser.

The tricky part, however, comes with the music-making. In Houston, he was a hero, building the orchestra from a middle-of-the-road ensemble into a nationally regarded institution. The players adored his spontaneity. "We were constantly watching with almost a joyful curiosity where he was going to take this piece tonight," said William VerMeulen, the Houston Symphony's principal horn player, in 2008.

But not every orchestra has responded quite so well to Eschenbach's gentle, nontraditional style. "There's a wealth that is transmitted," says Richard Hirschl, a cellist with the CSO. "But he doesn't force it out of you. It requires a certain generosity from you, too." Some players don't see why they should take the time. During Eschenbach's troubled tenure as the head of the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra, from 2003 to 2008, there was grousing about what players saw as technical shortcomings: lack of preparation, an unclear beat.

"You could absolutely find Christoph taking liberties with tempi," said Joe Kluger, who was president of the Philadelphia Orchestra when Eschenbach was hired and is now an associate principal at the consulting firm Wolf Brown. "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': Buy a recording. The creative process is not merely notes written on a page by a composer but the interpretation of those notes by living, breathing musicians. That's what makes it exciting."

Not to everyone. After a few years, the orchestra management polled the Philadelphia players and let Eschenbach know that the majority weren't happy with his leadership. Eschenbach's own view is that the management was influenced by a few malcontents and negative reviews from one of the Philadelphia Inquirer's classical music critics. "This was a mismanagement," he says. "And now everybody knows." Whatever happened, it led to Eschenbach's second contract not being renewed.

"The Philly problems shocked him," says Renaud Machard, the music critic for Le Monde. Machard observed Eschenbach through the latter's mixed tenure as music director of the Orchestre de Paris, a post he held concurrently with his American roles from 2000 until this year. But Machard says the quality of performances there, too, fell off.

After Philadelphia, Eschenbach said he would never again accept a music directorship. But the National Symphony Orchestra got him to change his mind. "It was the location in Washington," he says now of his decision. "It was the NSO, which I knew from the '90s," when he had last conducted the ensemble. "It was the Kennedy Center." Eschenbach's new title is not only music director of the NSO but of the whole Kennedy Center, meaning he will have a wider role in programming than his predecessors. "Also the fact that there is a healthy management," he emphasizes.

The NSO offers the conductor a new beginning. It could use some of the orchestra-building Eschenbach did in Houston. In Washington, Eschenbach will again get to be a big fish in a small pond. His intense and personal touch may hearken back to Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist-conductor of great personal warmth, if sometimes erratic technique, whose tenure from 1977 to 1994 represents the NSO's glory years.

Unlike Philadelphia, where players bridled when his appointment was announced, the NSO musicians are excited about Eschenbach. In 2008, the orchestra played with Eschenbach for the first time since the 1990s. "It was a wonderful concert," said Marissa Regni, a second violinist and co-chair of the orchestra's search committee. "We really poured ourselves into it." Eschenbach then met for several hours with the five players on the committee, discussing all of the ways the orchestra could move forward. Eschenbach is interested in expanding the orchestra's roles in education and outreach, in new media and in commercial recording, an endeavor it hasn't undertaken since 2001. "We found that we really do share a vision," Regni said.

The orchestra will also work with a whole new roster of stars. Mentoring has been key to Eschenbach's art; he's built up a long list of artists whom he has "discovered" or championed, and with whom he regularly performs: Fleming; the enfant-terrible pianist Lang Lang (whose debut Eschenbach led at Ravinia); the controversial pianist and polymath Tzimon Barto; the star baritone Matthias Goerne (whom Eschenbach has often accompanied in lieder recitals); and the violinist Jennifer Koh.

They love to work with him. "He has the ability," Fleming says, "to kind of know what you're going to do before you do it." She adds: "There's no ego that gets in the way. He's not competing with us. You can relax and just make music." Axelrod describes asking him about trying new ways of performing a given piece or phrase. "His attitude," Axelrod says, "is, 'Why not? Of course. Where are the rules that say you cannot?'"

Unlike many conductors, Eschenbach doesn't try to mold his proteges in his own image; rather, he takes delight in their quirks. He may even egg them on too far. "After years of playing with Christoph," Barto says, "I would push the buttons more and more, and he would always really not censor it but accommodate it." Eschenbach may also have encouraged the exaggerated physical effusiveness of Lang Lang. "He was cultivating all of Lang Lang's bad habits and pushing them," says Andrew Patner, a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and radio station WFMT. After Lang Lang began working with the conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, Patner says, "That's when he stopped swaying and moving his head and started playing all the notes."

Music, for Eschenbach, isn't prescriptive but individual. He's interested in what he, and other people -- composers or performers -- have to communicate. And onstage at Ravinia, in the glow of the lights, as he leads Fleming in the performance of "Four Last Songs," or conducts Barto in two little-known pieces by Schumann, he seems to be going for those elements of communication that take him beyond the routine, into something that might be truly meaningful, not just as music, but as life.

"I don't have a private life," he says. "I'm not married. Music is my homeland, music is my family, music is my love. And it's sufficient."

Anne Midgette is the classical music critic for The Washington Post and writes a blog, The Classical Beat. She can be reached at midgettea@washpost.com.

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