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October 15, 2012

Monday Musings: The value of National Symphony music director Christoph Eschenbach

So many factors go into the choice of an orchestra's music director these days. It often seems that music is actually pretty far down on the list.

I still recall with horror witnessing a League of American Orchestras session in 2004 when a panel of industry folks did a role-playing exercise to see how a fictional orchestra should deal with a fictional conductor.

His transgressions included being Russian-born with a limited command of English, limited interest in fundraising activities, limited knowledge of American repertoire, blah blah.

Oh, yes, he was also a great musician who really inspired the orchestra.

The prevailing attitude during the exercise was how that the guy had to go since, despite the artistic quality, he was obviously not a model modern music director for an American orchestra.

I have never forgotten that awful event -- and the badly disguised reference to then-Baltimore Symphony music director Yuri Temirkanov. But it was instructional about non-artistic agendas in the classical music business, agendas typically driven by the endless need to find money and build up audiences. Many people are willing to put music-making aside if it means an advantage in marketing, development, p.r., etc.

I am still old-school enough to believe that ...

the art should always come first. But I also recall how the BSO faced declining audiences and contributions during the Temirkanov era, despite all the galvanizing performances he generated. So I know it's tricky to strike a balance of goals and needs.

All things considered, I'd say the BSO found a workable balance with Marin Alsop's appointment. I'd say the National Symphony did, too, with the appointment of Christoph Eschenbach.

What I especially like about Eschenbach's arrival is that his selection seems to have been made almost exclusively from an artistic perspective, focusing on what he could do for and with the musicians. (I know there's was more to it -- there always is -- but I did say almost exclusively.)

And what Eschenbach has been doing is make the orchestra sound better. It seems to me, each time I make the trek to the Kennedy Center that the NSO is firmer, warmer, more full of personality. Sure, there still may be a ragged entrance here, an unfocused tone there, but the overall level is higher.

Eschenbach's value goes much deeper, though, at least in my book. There are other conductors who could get the orchestra to improve in various and important technical ways. But this man is also able to generate unusually interesting results onstage, thanks to a strongly individualistic streak.

You are not likely to mistake Eschenbach's Beethoven of Tchaikovsky for that of, say, his NSO predecessor, Leonard Slatkin, or Alsop or any number of others. Invariably, something happens that reveals Eschenbach's imprint on the score, not just the composer's.

Horrors, you say? Yes, I know some of you hate the notion of interpretive freedom. Sorry, but I see music as perpetually damp cement, always ready to accept a fresh signature that will then be wiped clean, waiting for the next interpreter.

I confess that I just love detecting Eschenbach's signature, even when it is relatively small -- perhaps a softer pianissimo than usual (like the one he called for a couple weeks ago early in Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet"), or a louder fortissimo, or a slightly broader pacing for a lyrical phrase in a score.

Invariably, I find myself affected, feeling more involved with the music, more grateful to be hearing it. That's how it was with Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 the other night.

In this case, it wasn't so much that Eschenbach, conducting from memory, applied all sorts of surprising personal touches to the music. The difference came in how deeply immersed he became in the notes, how he made them speak in freshly compelling ways.

The Adagio, which he molded with great sensitivity and a natural flow, proved emotionally gripping, with a terrific build up to the cymbal-accented climactic point. The Scherzo had terrific drive, the trio section remarkable charm. The outer movements bristled with drama.

In the end, the long symphony felt short. I'd call that a kind of magic, and further evidence of Eschenbach's artistic power.

It was wonderful, too, to hear Henze's orchestration of Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," especially given how sensitive Eschenbach was to the subtle Mahler-like coloring in the arrangement (contralto Nathalie Stutzmann was the subtle, penetrating soloist)

The evening was rewarding on many levels, even if there were some passages that would have been re-taken if this had been a recording session. Like I said, the NSO in not a flawless band (are there any?). But for intensity of focus, for expressive energy, this was a telling example of the orchestra's current level.

It was also one more example of how potent Eschenbach's guidance from the podium can be, how pivotal an agent he is in producing musical chemistry.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:48 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO


Here's another one who can't get enough of Eschenbach. In fact, I will even travel to NY to hear him conduct Bruckner's 6th with the NY Phil in January. For me, the Bruckner 6th that he conducted two seasons ago with the NSO was still one of the best concerts of the orchestra ever.

The issue isn't musicality vs. marketing — it's how do you compensate for the areas where a conductor isn't strong. Decades ago when the Los Angeles Philharmonic hired Carlo Maria Giulini to succeed Zubin Mehta, it did so realizing that the orchestra was going to have to backfill for Giulini's long-spoken disinclination to be a "marketer." It did just that. In the decision to hire Gustavo Dudamel, the LAPO elected to not worry about his relative lack of experience and focus on his excellent qualities. There are always choices. So far, you're happy with the positive qualities of Eschenbach (not everyone may agree) but when the NSO hired him, they knew they would have to handle whatever less-attractive issues that might arise. Both parts of the equation will need to be satisfied to make this a successful long-term relationship.

I also am a major fan of Eschenbach's: the electricity and concentration that he can conjure in a performance is amazing. A number of years ago, I heard him conduct the Schleswig Holstein Orchestra with Lang Lang in a Beethoven concerto and as an encore, listened to them both perform a piano/four hands version of Debussy's Petite Suite, where their playing was extraordinary. As a result of that concert and because the opportunities to hear a concert with two pianists of their caliber playing together are limited, if not almost nonexistent, I'm flying to DC from California to hear Eschenbach and Lang Lang play together on November 7 and then I'll stay for the rest of the week for the Beethoven. The NSO and Washington DC are very lucky to have Eschenbach!!

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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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