The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eschenbach’s NSO contract extended through 2016-17

National Symphony Orchestra with conductor Christoph Eschenbach. (Photo by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman)
Placeholder while article actions load

In the recent announcement of Deborah Rutter as the Kennedy Center’s new head, and the even more recent announcement of the Center’s 2014-15 season, one significant piece of business was overshadowed: the impending end of Christoph Eschenbach’s contract as music director of the Kennedy Center and the National Symphony Orchestra. Now, that end has been forestalled; today, the Kennedy Center and the NSO have announced that Eschenbach’s contract will be extended for two more seasons, through 2016-17.

Eschenbach says that the delay was purely administrative; with the impending transition from Kaiser to Rutter, there was some delay in establishing who would be signing the contract.

There was, he said, no hitch on Rutter’s side. “I was with the Chicago Symphony in December,” he observes, “the week after the announcement of the Kennedy Center was made, and we had wonderful, very intense conversations.” It was too early, he said, to go into any specifics of his future role.

“For the past four seasons, Maestro Eschenbach has elevated the stature of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center,” Kaiser said in a press statement. “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 describes 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 Criag Mulcahy); four other principal positions are open. “That is a big change,” Eschenbach observes, and the winds and brass, certainly, are sounding markedly better.

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, like Renee Fleming, who turned in a fine performance of “Der Rosenkavalier” earlier this month. But regular subscription concerts of core repertoire tend to be fuzzy: sometimes superficially exciting but often imprecise, technically and emotionally. And though Eschenbach has championed some composers he cares about — Jörg Widmann, Matthias Pintscher and, next season, Wolfgang Rihm — he has not actually unfurled a real vision for the future of the orchestra, nor has he been as visible in the community, in terms of engagement or outreach, as promised. (Some complain about the underrepresentation of American work, though thanks to the Hechinger fund for new commissions there is still a moderate American presence; next season will see the premiere of a new piece for steel drum and orchestra by Andy Akiho).

Eschenbach remains one of the highest-paid conductors in the country; in 2011, according to tax reports collected by the Los Angeles Times, he made nearly $2 million a year, and only Riccardo Muti and Michael Tilson Thomas earned more. It is not clear that the NSO or the Kennedy Center is getting the kind of shot in the arm or constant involvement from their nominal leader that such a salary might indicate. “The players are liberated,” Eschenbach avers. But the orchestra is far from being a leader in its field, in any sense, and will probably have to wait another couple of seasons before any real innovation is possible.