Tempo Magazine

Apr/May/Jun 2004

Christoph Eschenbach: A man of the people

By Lesley Valdes

Before becoming a conductor more than 30 years ago, Christoph Eschenbach was one of the world's foremost concert pianists. Since he became the seventh Music Director of The Philadelphia Orchestra, he has been spreading his extraordinary musical skills well beyond the stage of Verizon Hall.

When you are looking for a leader, but especially for the music director of a U.S. orchestra, one important quality is that he or she actively likes other people. So it's good to note that, off the podium, as well as when he's making music, Philadelphia Orchestra maestro Christoph Eschenbach is making his mark on Philadelphians. Eschenbach's hip look and Zen-like concentration belie an enormous approachability. And his enjoyment of the city is palpable.

"He always looks pleased to be around people: That's a very important quality," says Mateo Jiménez, a 14-year-old pianist who performed during the conductor's visit to the Paul Robeson House at the West Philadelphia Community Center last fall. Jiménez, who is also a jazz drummer and something of a local celebrity himself, played Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" and a Beethoven sonatina. Eschenbach was sitting in the front row; during the Beethoven he surprised everyone, especially the performer, by jumping up to turn pages.

"It was very humble of him," says Jiménez, who appreciated the way Eschenbach, who is also a pianist, followed a piece he's likely heard 1,000 times. "I made some mistakes," Jiménez says, "but he didn't criticize, he only complimented; he was very encouraging. Afterwards, we sat on the porch of the Paul Robeson house. I was eating cheese and crackers, he was eating shrimp, and we talked about conducting. But he didn't just talk to me, he was interested in everyone," says the teenager.

Carol Clark Lawrence, deputy city representative for arts and culture, who was also present, says Eschenbach was "thoroughly moved" by the Robeson house tour and reception. He spent two hours, and guests were taken with his relaxed, quiet manner, she said. "It was consistent with other meetings we've had with him. Christoph doesn't consider himself a star, and we are thrilled to be working with him."

Carole Shanis, president of the board of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, is another of the maestro's fans. At the 2003 Marian Anderson Award, which honored Oprah Winfrey, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed under Quincy Jones's direction. Eschenbach, Winfrey and Shanis sat together in the grooving audience. "It was a happening!" Shanis said of the live-wire event. "And Christoph was so happy. It was really wonderful to see his response to Quincy's conducting.

"Oprah kept saying: 'Philadelphia is so big, this event is so big!' I don't think she was aware of the magnitude of Philly's response to the arts. That's one thing about Eschenbach that is going to make a big difference He is so interested and responsive. I know he cares about Philly; I sit on the orchestra board, and I see him in many different settings."

During the 12 weeks each year that the music director is in town with the Philadelphia Orchestra, (he conducts three additional weeks on tour), Center City denizens have seen Eschenbach strolling the neighborhoods, enjoying local restaurants, and walking to work at the Kimmel Center rather than taking the orchestra limo. Like Wolfgang Sawallisch, who is music director emeritus, Eschenbach resides in a condominium at the Rittenhouse Hotel, which he dubs his 21st-century home. Paris is his European base, where he is music director of the Orchestre de Paris, and he also conducts in Hamburg.

Eschenbach's previous experience leading the Houston Symphony and the Chicago Symphony's summer season at Ravinia has clearly polished his understanding of the myriad challenges of running a U.S. orchestra. He knows how critical it is to develop new audiences and keep older ones interested. His ideas are refreshing, and "he has a very embracing attitude," according to Simon Woods, the Philadelphia Orchestra's former vice president for artistic planning and operations, who recently became president and CEO of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. "Christoph wants to communicate with everybody and he has an almost missionary zeal to spread far and wide the power of music — its transformational ability.

"He has this incredibly packed, intense schedule, and yet he's one of those people who can always find time to mingle," Woods continues. "It's a delight." One example: The day the conductor visited the Robeson house, he also met and fielded questions from the editorial boards of the Inquirer and the Tribune and his disposition, Woods says, remained "serene, almost Zen-like."

The conductor is getting high marks in the public schools, too. Paul Vallas, CEO of the Philadelphia School District, says Eschenbach is deeply involved with a pilot program to bring more music and art into the schools that is expected to be announced this spring. Eschenbach has impressed Vallas with his credo about music's power to change lives and with his commitment to community service.

"This was a first for me — that the music director himself would get involved on a personal level," says Vallas, who previously worked in Chicago's public school system on collaborations with the Chicago Symphony, but did not have a similar opportunity to get to know its music director, Daniel Barenboim.

"At our first meeting," Vallas says, "Eschenbach talked about his background in Germany and how music helped sustain him when he was orphaned during the Forties. Music gave his life meaning, gave him discipline, gave his life a focus and direction."

When Dennis Creedon, administrator for arts and culture for the Philadelphia School District, told Eschenbach he'd hoped to have members of the orchestra offer master classes for students, Eschenbach said he hoped he might also offer master classes for the teachers.

"He wants direct contact to offer his insights. In conversation, he kept mentioning the word transformation: music is more than a subject for him," says Creedon. "It is spiritual, and another way of learning."

When the orchestra planned its first open rehearsal for students, Woods says, "We started to do what we'd done before: seat the students far back out of the way of the musicians so they wouldn't disturb the rehearsal, but Christoph's approach was why wouldn't we want to bring them in closer? Actually seat them around the orchestra? So we did."

Audiences have enjoyed Eschenbach's informal remarks from the podium during subscription concerts. He has even appeared informally to chat with audiences at programs he isn't conducting. Orchestra archivist JoAnne Barry observed an event in Perelman Hall prior to a Family Concert, during which Eschenbach made a surprise visit, introduced himself, and mingled with the parents and their kids.

He has a great sense of humor, Barry says, adding that orchestra staffers have noticed Eschenbach's "endless energy."

Says Barry, something of a wit herself: "He is wearing a lot of people out."

With kind permission of TEMPO Magazine, published by WRTI at Temple University, Philadelphia