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September 30, 2008

Eschenbach looks forward to Washington 'haven'

Christoph EschenbachChristoph Eschenbach, looking as trim and fashionably attired as ever (a crisp study in black-on-black), paid a brief visit to Washington to get better acquainted with the next stop on his career -- the dual posts of music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Kennedy Center, starting full-time with the 2010-11 season. I stopped by the Center yesterday to interview the German-born pianist and conductor about his new appointments, as well as the negative talk about his short tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here's a sampling of what he had to say:

On Eschenbach's prior experiences with the NSO: "I conducted this orchestra several times in the early '90s and had a very good impression. The hall lacked focus, so I did not hear the total sound of the orchestra. But I liked the attitude of the orchestra."

Last February, Eschenbach made an unexpected appearance with the NSO in what he described as "a concert we provoked." The late addition to the orchestra's calendar served as a trial run to see how conductor and ensemble might click: "The sound was much better in the renovated hall. I was curious how the orchestra would react to the sound I wanted for ...

Brahms' Symphony No. 1. They were able to change their sound in just half an hour. At the concert, the playing was very involved, with joy and emotional depth. And it was technically brilliant. I was very taken with it. It was at that moment that I said I thought I could build on this, and we began to look into details -- on both sides."

The NSO was strongly identified with Russian repertoire when Mstislav Rostropovich was music director, then with American repertoire during Leonard Slatklin's just-completed tenure. What are we most likely to identify with the Eschenbach era? "I have to study the programs that have been done by Slatkin and [principal conductor Ivan Fischer], and, from that, see what repertoire should be the niche. It could be German – Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms. I have a very big repertoire by now and a very big heart for music. There is hardly any composer I do not like. [He pauses and gives a slight laugh.] Except maybe for Pfitzner and Lortzing."

What attracts Eschenbach to take on the newly created job of Kennedy Center music director as well as the NSO post, and how does he feel about having Washington as a major center in his professional life: "The double position is very interesting, a thing one can hardly resist. It will be very stimulating and inspiring to make synergies between the NSO and the Kennedy Center ... to program special things with both organizations. The Kennedy Center is so full of art, and this city is so full of art. There are some of the greatest museums of the world here. And it is all compressed into a not-too-big place. Plus, it is a very international city. I hope to get in touch with many of the embassies, not just the German and French, to get acquainted with their activities."

Eschenbach's five-year stint with the Philadelphia Orchestra included talk of resentment from players on the way he was hired; some dissatisfaction within the ensemble after he started; and sniping from at least one corner of the local press. "Why read the reviews of a critic I know doesn’t like me? I’ve also given performances, and here I'm speaking of my whole life, where I think, 'My God, that wasn’t as good as it could have been,' and yet I would get a very good review. That is also not good. I’m pretty sure to [continue] my way of music-making, I’m old enough now. I’m not a student anymore. I have seen and heard so many things. I know what is my honest expression. I certainly have not swallowed a metronome. I certainly am not just a CD of my last concert. And I am not a copy of Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So. I am myself. I am true to myself, but always respecting the composer. In every orchestra, some people don’t like the conductor. In the Philadelphia Orchestra, there were eight or nine who didn’t like me, certainly not 80 percent, which was reported ... After the last concert of my tenure a few months ago in Shanghai, the orchestra gave me a dinner party, not the management. I was very touched by that. There were beautiful speeches. In the end, we shared the dinner expenses half and half."

Eschenbach is not scheduled to conduct the NSO again until early 2010, as music director-designate. That's the year he steps down as music director of the Orchestre de Paris. Meanwhile, he couldn't sound much more upbeat about his new association: "I said to the orchestra and the board (of the NSO) that I feel so happy to come into a haven here, where everybody is working together -- board, administration, management, orchestra. That became very important to me after two very difficult times, in Philadelphia and Paris, because of management. I am very much looking forward to my work here. I am sure it will be very inspirational and creative."


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:44 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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