The Philadelphia Inquirer

January 21, 2001

Music is all he needs to make him happy

By Stephan Salisbury

As a child, Christoph Eschenbach was temporarily robbed of speech by wartime suffering. Music became his language, and the man who will lead The Philadelphia Orchestra swears it is all he needs in life.
The Second World War ended for Christoph Ringmann, all of 5 years old, in a shroud of silence.
Alone, homeless, feverish and near death - how much could a small child bear, even in the chaotic and stricken Germany of 1945?
That trauma more than half a century and an ocean away has marked the life of the boy - now known as Christoph Eschenbach and recently named music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra - to this day, arguably propelling him to the very pinnacle of his profession.
"He never talks about his childhood," said pianist Tzimon Barto, one of Eschenbach's closest friends. "He never uses his childhood as a publicity gimmick. But he doesn't care at all for holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. His family is music. I know that sounds hokey. But music isn't work for him."
One needs only a glimpse into Eschenbach's early years to understand why.
His mother died in 1940 during his difficult birth in Breslau, which was then in Germany but is now Wroclaw in Poland. His father, a distinguished musicologist and outspoken anti-Nazi, was subsequently dragooned into the German army and shipped to his death on the Russian front.
As the Third Reich crumbled, the boy's great-grandmother and grandmother scooped him up and fled Silesia toward Hamburg. His great-grandmother fell ill and died in transit. In a makeshift camp in a barn in northern Germany, where the boy and his grandmother were quarantined, virulent typhoid killed doctors and refugees alike. Christoph Ringmann's grandmother died as she lay at the child's side.
It seemed certain that he would follow her.
At the last moment, after receiving a postcard mailed by the grandmother before her death, Christoph's cousin, Wallydore Eschenbach, found and rescued him and nursed him back to health.
But for one thing: The child could not speak.
The trauma and pain of Christoph Ringmann's brief life overwhelmed him for nearly a year, smothering speech.
There was, however, a miracle yet to come. As he convalesced, his cousin, a serious singer and pianist, introduced him to the piano. Christoph embraced it, absorbed it, as needy soil drinks in the rain.
Music, literally, became his language and his life.
"I was so full of difficult things that I had to express myself," Christoph Eschenbach - who adopted his cousin's surname - once said. "I had to make music."
Not surprisingly, then, when it was announced Jan. 9 that the 61-year-old Eschenbach would succeed Wolfgang Sawallisch, becoming the orchestra's seventh music director, the power of music to express and communicate emerged as a theme in his remarks.
"Music is a global language - it has no barriers," Eschenbach said. "It is a language spoken everywhere."
Small in stature, elegant and restrained in manner, thoughtful in speech, Eschenbach presents a figure of quiet, controlled authority. He appeared for the announcement on the stage of the Academy of Music dressed in a beautifully tailored, jet-black, neo-Mao jacket, the same type he favors for performances.
As he spoke of the excitement of taking the artistic helm of the century-old orchestra beginning in 2003 (no salary details have been disclosed, but comparable posts pay in excess of $1 million annually), the terrors of childhood could not have seemed further away. Yet his childhood discovery of music as redemptive language and emotive force has defined and directed his life and career, first as one of postwar Germany's finest concert pianists, and then as conductor, initially in Europe and then in this country, where he served as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra for 11 years, beginning in 1988.
"This is how I take music: as an expression of human feelings - very simple feelings, actually," Eschenbach has said. "Joy and grief and passion - and within these feelings there are many ranges. And everybody has them - a Japanese, an Eskimo, an American, a Russian. This is the great advantage of music."
Eschenbach transformed the Houston orchestra over the course of his years there, in part by gaining the respect and devotion of the players, in part by letting some players go, in part by communicating complex ideas and feelings in a visceral, almost nonverbal fashion.
"He is a true magician in the sense that he is able to convey to 105 musicians how to translate his emotion," said John M. Proffitt, general manager and chief executive officer of Houston's classical music station, KUHF-FM.
For his part, Eschenbach has said that "everyone has his way to express the music and convey this expression to the orchestra, in order to make them understand and project it to the audience."
Proffitt worked with Eschenbach on several broadcasts and recordings and described him as "a very warm and delightful person, extremely thoughtful and philosophical without wandering into abstraction."
"The Houston Symphony has the well-deserved reputation over the years of being a difficult and fractious group," Proffitt continued. "And to a person, they love Eschenbach. They have nothing but respect for the man."
Violinist Raphael Fliegel, who played with the Houston orchestra for half a century before retiring a few years ago, asked to return to the ensemble last year to participate in a series of farewell concerts for Eschenbach.
"He's the kind of person who inspires absolute loyalty," Fliegel said at the time.
Eschenbach's approach to his work is almost holistic.
"I think physical and spiritual aims should go together, so any superfluous movement wouldn't be good," he has said. "On the other hand, there's always an energy level to music that I communicate with movements linked to my spiritual feeling of the piece. I aim for the mix of the physical with the spiritual, of emotion with the intellect."
Wallydore Eschenbach, a singer as well as a pianist, taught the young Eschenbach the importance of
breath - "the soul" of his conducting to this day. "I breathe with the singers, with the instrumentalists, with the soloists, through my whole body," he has said. "Breathing is the soul of my conducting style."
When his talented piano playing began to outstrip his cousin's ability to teach, she arranged for him to study professionally.
"I always intended to be a conductor," Eschenbach has explained. "When I was a child, I was taken to hear Wilhelm Furtwangler conduct, and when I saw him, I was gone. I was around 10 years old, and already studying the piano, with Eliza Hansen, a Romanian pianist who had studied with Artur Schnabel. After that concert, my family bought me a violin, so that I could broaden my background and stretch my abilities. In chamber-music gatherings, I played three different instruments - piano, violin and viola. When I was 19, I started to study conducting with Wilhelm Bruckner-Ruggeberg at the Hamburg Conservatory and I passed the conducting examinations there. But by that time I had already won prizes in the Munich and Clara Haskil piano competitions, and thought I should do that first."
He became the hottest pianist to emerge in Germany in the 1960s. His first recording was with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1965. Karajan became an important mentor.
"He was a very shy man," Eschenbach said of Karajan. "Very centered. Not many people entered his world. But for those of us who did, it was actually a surprisingly simple world. His musical priorities were very clear. He was a painterly sort of conductor."
Eschenbach's blossoming concert career soon brought him to the United States, where he met and worked with his other great mentor, George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Symphony.
"The great teacher among those I played with was George Szell, who brought me to America to play the Mozart F major Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1969," Eschenbach has said. "He heard me play and he said, I want you to make your American debut with me, if you don't have anything against it. But I have to see you many times. I must check you out, because to Cleveland we bring only the best.' Szell let me sit in on his rehearsals, and I had two long sessions with him when we simply went through repertory together at the piano. It was fantastic - I had never learned as much in as short a time."
In those days, Eschenbach's life was devoted to playing, and his touring schedule was merciless. Each year he would give 100 to 150 concerts on the road. He was constantly traveling, constantly working. Music was everything.
He did build a retreat in the Canary Islands where he could go for a few days now and again. Leonard Bernstein was a familiar face there. But retreats to the islands were, and are, fleeting.
Eschenbach has a few, very close friends; two closest to him include pianist Barto and his wife, Gesa. When their son, now 10, was born with physical difficulties, Eschenbach took a particular interest.
"He had problems he had to deal with and Christoph is always there," said Gesa Barto. "It's not compensation [for his own traumatic childhood]. It's a big-heart situation. In Sapporo, Japan, he worked with music therapists and disabled children. They made the most beautiful drawings for him and he had them in his apartment. He does so many things, almost secretly. His interest is always there and always focused. He has a big heart for people with special personalities . . . and he works with them whenever he can."
Eschenbach's life, though, remains almost completely taken up with music. When asked the other day at the Academy about "hobbies," he seemed somewhat nonplussed. Hobbies?
"Music is not only my passion but my obsession," he said. "When you have an obsession, there is little time for anything else."
A little literature. A bit of art collecting. And music. Music. And more music.
How could there be time for anything else? In addition to his duties in Philadelphia, where he intends to take up residence at least part time, Eschenbach has major commitments in Paris (where he has also recently acquired an apartment), Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Chicago and Houston.
Eschenbach is single and tirelessly peripatetic, with transoceanic commitments an unalterable fact of life. He is constantly moving. The day he made his debut as director-designate in Philadelphia, he had conducted the Houston Symphony the night before and he was leaving for Paris commitments in the afternoon.
"The truth is, I have dedicated my life to music - my whole life," Eschenbach once said. "If I feel lonely, all I have to do is think of a place in a score I love and I am not lonely anymore. I am, you see, a completely happy man."

Copyright 2001 The Philadelphia Inquirer