In the climate of transition at the Kennedy Center as President Michael Kaiser prepares to depart, one thing will stay constant. On Monday, the center announced that the contract of Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the Kennedy Center and the National Symphony Orchestra, which was due to expire at the end of 2014-15, will be extended for two more seasons, through 2017.
“It was due to be [extended] in August, actually,” Eschenbach said in a phone interview. “But with the transition of Michael Kaiser, to the presidency of Deborah Rutter, there was a kind of a vacuum because Michael didn’t want to sign anything any more after the end of last season, and Deborah, not yet. They agreed immediately that it should happen, [but putting] it into writing and the discussion of details took a little bit of time.”
There was, he said, no hitch on Rutter’s side. “I was with the Chicago Symphony [where Rutter is currently president] in December,” he said, “just a week after the announcement of the Kennedy Center was made. We had very intense and cheerful and productive conversations.”
“For the past four seasons, Maestro Eschenbach has elevated the stature of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center,” Kaiser said in a news release. “I am pleased this relationship will continue for an additional two seasons.”
The degree of elevation remains open to question. The start of Eschenbach’s tenure appeared to be reinvigorating the orchestra, and the two international tours within eight months in 2012 and 2013, to South America and to Europe, boosted morale and the orchestra’s profile. Eschenbach described his experience with the group as “better than I ever imagined.”
The orchestra has engaged 11 new players under Eschenbach’s tenure and promoted two others to principal chairs (the flutist Aaron Goldman and the trombonist Craig Mulcahy); three other principal positions, as well as the post of associate concertmaster, are open. “That is a big change,” Eschenbach said, and the winds and brass, certainly, are sounding markedly better.
“The awakening of creativity in every single musician is, for me, extraordinary,” Eschenbach said. “I hear it from the musicians when they play; I hear it also in conversations; I sense it when we make chamber music, quite a lot, at the Millennium Stage and Terrace Theater events.” (Eschenbach has performed five times at Millennium Stage and has appeared twice in chamber music performances with the orchestra’s musicians.)
Yet for all of the new energy, Eschenbach’s concerts with the orchestra have not consistently represented the kind of vital music-making one might have hoped. Eschenbach is at his best with the big moments, drawing on his cadre of close musical associates such as Renee Fleming, who turned in a fine performance of “Der Rosenkavalier” earlier this month, or Matthias Goerne, with whom he has offered two memorable recitals. But regular subscription concerts of core repertoire tend to be fuzzy: sometimes superficially exciting but often imprecise, technically and emotionally.
Eschenbach’s engagement with new music has been mixed, with some definite highlights. He has championed some German composers such as Jörg Widmann, Matthias Pintscher and Wolfgang Rihm, whose new piano concerto is a point of interest on next year’s calendar. Thanks to the orchestra’s Hechinger Commissioning Fund, he also has led some American works — “the Hechinger fund is for that,” he said — including pieces by Augusta Read Thomas, Sean Shepherd and the late Peter Lieberson. The 2014-15 season will see the premiere of a new piece for steel drum and orchestra by Andy Akiho.
What’s missing, though, is an overall sense of a real vision for the future of the orchestra.
Eschenbach is one of the highest-paid conductors in the country. In 2011, according to tax reports collected by the Los Angeles Times, he made almost $2 million. Only Riccardo Muti (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco Symphony) earned more. Yet the orchestra is far from being a leader in its field, in any sense, apart from the base pay earned by its musicians.
At a time when many institutions seem to be struggling, Washington is fortunate to have a secure, well-paid orchestra. It’s just a shame that that orchestra does not make any particular mark on our nation’s musical landscape — and that its music director does not seem to be leading it in a way that will enable it to do so.