American Record Guide

May 2002


A talk with Christoph Eschenbach: A distinguished past, and new horizons.


By David Wright

At age 62, Christoph Eschenbach can look back on a lifetime of achievements in music: beginning as one of the outstanding young pianists of his generation, he went on to become music director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, Houston Symphony, Ravinia Festival, and Orchestre de Paris. And he can look forward to still more accomplishments as the designated successor to Wolfgang Sawallisch as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, beginning in 2003.
As one who prefers looking forward, Eschenbach rarely mentions one fact about his busy life: it nearly never happened.
By the accident of his birth in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1940, little Christoph Ringmann found himself hurled into the chaos of World War II when he was barely able to walk. Orphaned by childbirth and the war, the boy fled west with his great-grandmother and grandmother, just ahead of advancing Soviet troops. One of his caretakers died on the trip, and the other died of typhoid fever in a refugee camp near Hamburg.
Christoph too would probably have become a grim statistic of World War II if his cousin Wallydore Eschenbach had not found him and taken him into her home. And so he became Christoph Eschenbach, a five-year-old who had seen so many horrors that he was unable to speak for almost a year. By his account, it was the abundant music in the Eschenbach household that broke the communication barrier. Soon, he was not only pursuing his musical studies but reading voraciously, and talking about what he learned.
Fast-forward now, half a century. Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the Orchestre de Paris, is enjoying lunch with the French ambassador and guests in London, before a Proms concert that night at the Royal Albert Hall. It is about time for dessert, on September 11, 2001. Then the group is told what is happening in America. Later, Eschenbach recalled his reaction: "I was speechless."
He thought of the concert that night. Should he cancel it? He made up his mind, and met with the players to tell them the concert would go on, but with the Funeral March from Beethoven's Third Symphony substituted for that composer's Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus.
Many of the players were in shock from the day's events. "One of them said to me, 'I can't do this. My arm won't move'", says Eschenbach. "I said to all of them, 'Please, please, please do it. The people need it.' Afterward, some of those same players spoke to me and thanked me that I persuaded them to play."
Characteristically, Eschenbach then shifts the spotlight away from himself. "New Yorkers are so brave," he says. "In spite of how things have changed, they pursue their daily work, and they are kind to each other. I admire them very much."
When this writer caught up with him, Christoph Eschenbach was in New York to conduct Strauss's Arabella at the Metropolitan Opera. "The production is a revival, so rehearsal time is very compressed", he said. "But I am doing harmonious work with the Met Orchestra." I reminded him that the Met's artistic director, James Levine, on the occasion of being named to succeed Seiji Ozawa as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had remarked that "the repertoire is getting larger and larger, and rehearsal time is getting shorter and shorter".
"But orchestras get better and better!" Eschenbach replied.
Certainly the ones he has led have done so. Although he traces his conductorial ambitions back to when he was 11 years old and heard a concert led by Wilhelm Furtwangler, it was a three-month residency in Cleveland in 1968-69, at the right hand of George Szell, that both launched his conducting career and showed him what an orchestra-building conductor could do. In his first music-director post, at the Rhineland-Pfalz State Philharmonic, he introduced new repertoire and increased the orchestra's roster from 65 to 95 players in just two years, from 1979 to 1981. "It was exciting to build it", he says.
During his 11 years in Houston, from 1988 to 1999, he says, "we wanted to create a world-class orchestra, and we did that." It was first of all a matter of "focusing the orchestra in its artistic mentality, building its artistic integrity and ethics". Ambitious programs to commission new works and perform operas in concert rounded out Eschenbach’s plan for Houston.
His commitment to the music of today dates back to his days as a touring pianist, when, for example, Hans Werner Henze composed a piano concerto for him. When he and I spoke, the Boston Symphony had just caused controversy by canceling their long-planned performance of choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera by John Adams about a terrorist attack. Eschenbach declined to comment on that incident, but he left no doubt as to his view of new music in a post-September 11 world.
"We need it more than before", he said. "Contemporary music helps us deal with the daily fight to find harmony with our self and the world. It describes what is necessary to live. We must not reject our living composers-they want to reach the ears of the people."
The conductor, who is mostly bald and conducts in a smartly tailored Nehru-style jacket, may remind some onlookers of the actor Patrick Stewart in the "Star Trek" television series. But on the podium, this is no cool-as-ice spaceship captain. In fact, his animated, hip-waggling conducting style is most often compared to that of his longtime friend and big-brother figure, Leonard Bernstein.
He has, however, been put in charge of a 21st-Century spaceship of another kind: Philadelphia's brand-new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a hail wired for every kind of audio and video medium anyone has thought of yet. In Eschenbach's view, the longstanding tyranny of recording companies in disseminating the work of symphony orchestras is headed for the ash-heap of history. "Streaming and downloading on the internet are how many people will hear music", he says.
And what will they hear from Philadelphia? What will the orchestra-builder do with one of the most "built" orchestras in the world? "It is very good to work with an orchestra that is known for quality", Eschenbach says.
After a moment's reflection, he goes on, "But quality is unlimited. It can rise, and rise, and rise."
Launch date for this vehicle is September 2003. Fasten your seat belt.


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