Arts Desk

Can Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra’s New Maestro, Escape His Troubled Past?

eschenbach

It’s the age-old question of tobacco-industry executives and symphonic orchestra directors alike: How do you stay in business when your customers keep dying?

The National Symphony Orchestra hopes Christoph Eschenbach has the answer. The well-regarded maestro and pianist makes his debut Saturday as the orchestra’s sixth music director. But no matter what music critics ultimately decide about his run, the 70-year-old already has a bullet-proof reputation in one key area: his canny business sense. One other thing Eschenbach is known for? Not getting along with musicians.

Both traits were on display in Philadelphia, which Eschenbach left in 2008. On the positive side of the conductor stand: He was known for a willingness to make repeated house and office calls to donors. During his tenure, the Philadelphia Orchestra wrapped up a five-year, $125 million endowment campaign. And though the NSO’s status as the house band of the publicly subsidized Kennedy Center means its financial pressures aren’t the same—NSO Executive Director Rita Shapiro maintains fundraising is not in the official job description—local audiences are not entirely recession-proof, either. Shapiro acknowledges that the past couple years have been a “tough time” for ticket sales.

Even without the sour economy, the orchestra has faced some more specific threats. Since 2005, the Music Center at Strathmore has constituted a bold—and largely successful—effort by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to poach D.C.’s Maryland suburbs.

Against that backdrop, is Eschenbach the guy to revive the NSO’s fortunes—and, perhaps, elevate the orchestra’s traditionally middling reputation? Simply snagging a former music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a major coup. Philly counts as one of the “big five” classical orchestras in the U.S, along with New York, Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland. The fact that D.C. ranks somewhere below Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in symphonic prestige leaves the NSO with an inferiority complex that it hopes Eschenbach’s marquee name will fix.

It’s hard to top Eschenbach’s bio. Born a war orphan in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1940, Eschenbach lost his mother in childbirth and his father, an anti-Nazi musicologist, to the Russian front after he was conscripted into a Wehrmacht penal unit. Discovering the piano at an early age, he studied at the Cologne University of Music, going on to win several European piano contests. Solo shows and record deals followed, before he turned his attention to conducting: first in Europe, then 11 years in Houston before moving to classical’s top ranks as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003.

But Eschenbach’s inspiring personal history and his success at dunning donors are mitigated by a history of conflict with fellow musicians. Eschenbach ended his Philadelphia tenure under a cloud after just five years. Stories in the Philly press alluded to acrimony toward Eschenbach by orchestra members, who were reportedly less than thrilled with his initial appointment and subsequently frustrated by his impulsive (in his words, “flexible”) conducting style. Players complained of his tendency to switch up tempos unexpectedly from rehearsal to performance, even at different performances of the same piece. Eschenbach was frequently hammered by classical music critic Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where descriptors like “exaggerated,” “erratic” and “capriciously paced” peppered reviews.

In 2006, the Philadelphia Orchestra board brought on a new president, James Undercofler, with the understanding that his first job was to fire Eschenbach. Undercofler promptly notified Eschenbach that 80 percent of the players “did not agree with his artistic interpretations,” in a poll that was leaked to the Inquirer. Eschenbach alleged the poll was pure fiction. But the damage was done, and in a far more public manner than the board had hoped. Eschenbach was offered a reduced conducting schedule, but he saw little point in staying on. Deriding orchestra management as “amateurish,” he left the orchestra after the 2007–2008 season. (Eschenbach was out of the country and unavailable to be interviewed for this article. Undercofler, now a performing arts professor at Drexel University, declined to comment.)

In D.C., Eschenbach may not even have been the NSO’s first choice. Though the orchestra’s search committee never released names of candidates, two NSO sources say Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer was approached for the job, which he turned down. (Fischer instead took up a temporary post as NSO’s “principal conductor” before Eschenbach arrived.) Shapiro says the selection process was confidential, and that any stories about who was made an offer first are speculation. The sources say Fischer, who runs his own orchestra in Budapest with an iron grip, was less than jazzed about the cooperative responsibilities that would come with answering to both NSO and Kennedy Center management.

It’s in this capacity that Eschenbach’s strengths will likely live up to the hype. One of the NSO’s hopes is to hire its way up the food chain: The orchestra has been holding key positions open for Eschenbach to fill in the coming year, including principal trombone and assistant principal oboe. But Eschenbach himself is certainly the NSO’s biggest, and most expensive, hire. His $2.3 million Philadelphia salary was more than twice what the NSO had paid its last music director, Leonard Slatkin.

Slatkin’s record, in fact, explains a lot about what may have made Eschenbach so appealing to NSO higher-ups. Where Slatkin seemed bored with his supposedly non-official fundraising chores, Eschenbach has excelled at such work. Where Slatkin focused on British and American contemporary composers, Eschenbach is expected to program more Mozarts and Mahlers. His conducting style is also more emotional, and less technical, than Slatkin’s. It certainly doesn’t hurt that his bio looks a bit like that of the late Mstislav Rostropovich, the Russian cellist who ably directed the NSO between 1977 to 1994. (The audience, alas, is surely old enough to spot the parallels).

Perhaps learning from the PR fiasco that marked Eschenbach’s exit from Philly, players and management are on the same page, at least in public. “Eschenbach has always been very well liked here,” says violist William Foster, head of the NSO’s Orchestra Committee, which voices players’ interests to management. As for the issues with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Foster says: “Every orchestra has their own chemistry.” Foster speculates that Eschenbach’s vilification in his last post stems from resentment by the players for having been excluded from the selection process there. In contrast, musicians held six of the 15 seats of the NSO’s search committee.

And Eschenbach is not exactly untested: He’s been leading the orchestra for most of the past year, as a guest conductor before his tenure officially begins. Reviews so far have been mixed; Washington Post critic Anne Midgette trashed his last regular season concert in March, a performance of Verdi’s Requiem with the Washington Chorus, as inconsistent and not together, though Robert Reilly of the Ionarts blog called it “impressive.” This Saturday’s season opening should go smoothly—soloist Renée Fleming has worked closely with Eschenbach for years, and pianist Lang Lang, “China’s Liberace,” is a reliably entertaining showman. It remains to be seen whether Eschenbach can raise orchestra profiles as well as he raises revenues, and whether the NSO’s own enthusiasm for its new maestro catches on with audiences.

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