Arts Desk

Eschenbach’s Not Going Anywhere

ESCHNBCH_030SuchmanBLOGThe Kennedy Center announced it will extend the contract of National Symphony Orchestra director Christoph Eschenbach through 2017, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette reported Monday.

Is this a surprise? No. NSO directors tend to stick around for a while: Antal Doráti had the shortest tenure, of just seven years in the '70s; Mstislav Rostropovich, his successor, stuck around for 17, and old Howard Mitchell lasted 20. Even the embattled Leonard Slatkin made it to 12 before being, er, coming to a mutual agreement with the board.

Eschenbach took the helm in 2010 to much hoopla, so it’s hard to imagine the Kennedy Center not extending his contract. Or rather, had that been a possibility, we would have seen signs of it by now. Granted, some of that hoopla has faded, as is expected with anyone who was as hyped at the start as Eschenbach. And there was a lot to hype: a Hollywood bio (war orphan-turned-piano virtuoso) and experience leading a higher profile—and, let’s be blunt, better—orchestra than the NSO, the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was billed, not so subtly, as the anti-Slatkin: European and not American, romantic and not technical, team player attuned to development needs and not, um, distracted with personal issues.

Now that Eschenbach has had a few years under his baton, we can judge for ourselves how he’s delivered on that promise. He’s made good on bringing us closer to Europe, a shift away from the NSO’s previous niche focus on American music. He’s toured the orchestra internationally, including an unorthodox South American circuit. He’s leveraged his personal relationships into celebrity visits by Renée Fleming and Lang Lang, even took to the keyboard to bang out some tunes with the latter. He’s shone a spotlight on several new composers, often European (Joerg Widmann, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho) but also American (Peter Lieberson, Augusta Read Thomas), Israeli (Avner Dorman) and others; this can be risky with more conservative audiences, but more often than not, the pieces have connected well. And when doing the old favorites, the Beethovens and Bartóks, he’s managed to acquaint us with their rarer works and deliver some of the best NSO concerts in recent memory (Fidelio and Bluebeard’s Castle, respectively). His leadership has reportedly improved orchestra morale, if not necessarily its technical precision that Eschenbach prioritizes somewhere below his personal feel for each piece.

On the other hand, he hasn’t yet achieved the one thing the Kennedy Center, and D.C. classical fans, really want, the same thing they’ve asked of every NSO director before him: to turn the NSO into a truly top-tier, internationally recognized orchestra. But that’s a tall, maybe impossible order. What makes an orchestra a “Big Five” is at this point a question of legacy and arguably no longer really relevant. The NSO’s sometimes suffered from less than stellar musicianship, something Eschenbach’s been tasked with correcting through some hires, particularly in the historically subpar brass section. But these things take time.

So the evaluation from management seems to be: pretty good. Definitely good enough not to get fired.

Whether that justifies his reported $2 million salary (at Philly he made $2.3), double that of his predecessor and higher than nearly every other conductor in the country, is an open question. But the NSO, being part of the Kennedy Center, has a financial buffer courtesy of taxpayers that other orchestras don’t have. So the fact that we can afford to pay our musicians handsomely—as highly skilled artists should be (not just Eschenbach but the orchestra as a whole enjoys good salaries), when other orchestras are either going bankrupt or extracting pounds of flesh from their musicians in bitter labor disputes—is something to celebrate, not begrudge. And decent compensation probably matters a lot more for orchestra morale than the name at the podium.

Orchestra directors wear a lot of hats, a lot of which we don’t see: programmer, fundraiser, talent scout, coach, as well as baton-waver. Eschenbach’s bosses are apparently happy with his behind the scenes work. But then again, something would have to be seriously wrong for them not to be. Barring gross negligence, chances are we’ll see another extension after this, and another one a few years down the road.

Eschenbach’s profile so far remains greater than his orchestra, as evinced by his periodic absences jet-setting to engagements across the globe. With more time, there’s hope the NSO will catch up to its director. But the NSO is an institution within an institution, and there’s only so much one man can do.

Photo by Scott Suchman

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