International Herald Tribune

October 13, 2005

Eschenbach's united effort behind 'Ring'

By Mary Blume

The most eagerly awaited event of the season is Wagner's 'Ring' at the Châtelet Theater, which begins Wednesday with 'Das Rheingold' and reaches a climax in April with two full performances of all four operas and Plácido Domingo as Siegmund in 'Die Walküre.' Robert Wilson directs and the conductor is Christoph Eschenbach leading his Orchestre de Paris.

It is the orchestra's first Wagner production, and it is a measure of progress under Eschenbach that they are working with enthusiasm and - as a group noted for a lack of discipline - in unison.

"Well, French orchestras lack discipline usually, but that can be overcome," Eschenbach says. "I love individualism. I don't like a gray mass in orchestras. If I find a gray mass I have to wake them up. I want to see the individual artistic personality because then I can not only give but receive, and I want to receive many artistic colors from an orchestra."

The Orchestre de Paris was founded in 1967 with the typically Gaullist notion of restoring French orchestral music to a level where it had never been. Pierre Cardin designed the musician's outfits (soon abandoned) and Charles Munch returned from retirement to lead it, dying within a year.

His successors, Herbert von Karajan and then Georg Solti, did not have the time to guide the young orchestra. Then Daniel Barenboim arrived in 1975, imaginative and committed, and built the orchestra into a harmonious whole. Eschenbach took over in 2000 after putting Houston's formerly mediocre symphony orchestra on the musical map. The Orchestre de Paris, he claims, now has higher audition standards than in the United States and in Hamburg's NDR Symphony, which he used to lead.

An acclaimed concert pianist, Eschenbach, 65, began conducting in 1971 with mixed reviews and great determination because, he says, this had been his aim from the start. He was a finalist in the highly politicized 2001 search to lead the New York Philharmonic, a post won by the astute Lorin Maazel, and is also the musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, only the seventh since its foundation in 1900. While working on Wagner, he opened the Philadelphia season this month and will commute as usual this winter.

In the summer he leads an international youth orchestra in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, which he helped found. He still plays the piano, but mostly in chamber music groups with his orchestras. "Here and there I play a Mozart concerto conducting from the piano, or early Beethoven, or I accompany a singer, which I really love to do."

Eschenbach, after taking a 'Rheingold' run-through and before a six-hour 'Walküre' rehearsal, is a quietly humorous and notably equable maestro whose color comes from the bright green turned-back cuffs of his black leather Chinese-style jacket and the scarlet lining of his black silk waistcoat. He gives an impression more of quiet immersion than of bossy control.

As conductor, soloist, teacher, fund-raiser and accompanist he inhabits a world of music. It is not just that, as the cliché has it, music is his life; it is music that gave him life.

He was born Christoph Ringmann in 1940 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), where his mother, a pianist, died in childbirth. His musicologist father, an anti-Nazi, was sent to the Russian front to die.

As the war ended, Christoph fled west with his grandparents. His grandfather died en route and, quarantined in a makeshift camp, his grandmother was killed by typhus with the child lying by her side. A musician cousin and her violinist husband eventually tracked him down and adopted him.

Christoph was unable to speak for more than a year. His horrible experiences, he says, brought him to music. "I had to express myself, find a let-out for those terrible impressions that were locked in me.

And when I heard my second mother play and sing I also wanted to play and sing. It was saying yes to music - that was what I wanted to do in life because I was for the first time really happy."

Today, going on the podium his feeling is more of elation than nerves. "I have nerves in a good way. I know this is the moment when music is alive. It was not alive before, it is not alive after. It is black dots on more or less white paper. The moment is the moment and that makes me excited."

As a child he shone not only in piano, winning his first prize at 10, but also in violin and viola; from listening to his mother's singing lessons he learned a good deal about the human voice and thus about wind instruments, all of which gave him a vital understanding of an orchestra's component parts.

Later as a pianist, he played with George Szell and Herbert von Karajan but picked up no conducting pointers. Szell gave him his most useful lesson when he asked Eschenbach, who was making his piano debut with the Cleveland Orchestra, to accompany his wife to a big fund-raiser and ball.

"She took me around, introduced me to every board member and every possible donor. She introduced me in the American way to the life around the orchestra and I learned very much on this evening that I remembered when I began in Houston. Then in Houston I learned a lot more."

American-style fund-raising doesn't bother him and he enjoys American-style community relations, such as soothing fears of contemporary music in Philadelphia by inviting composers to speak with audiences not about the pieces themselves but about the why and where of their making. "I said you can also talk about your grandmother; it's just that you are there and that they hear your human voice and that they hear this human voice in your music."

The publicly funded Orchestre de Paris demands minimal public relations work from Eschenbach; here the problem is political. Caught between city and state wrangling, the orchestra has no hall of its own, rehearsing sometimes in outlandish suburbs and performing in the inadequate Salle Pleyel, now in the even worse Mogador theater. In 2006 the orchestra plans to move back to a slightly improved Pleyel.

Part of the remarkable cohesion between Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris comes from having to struggle together in adverse conditions. "I think it is a pity that this beautiful city in this beautiful country doesn't even have a decent concert hall, which every other city has," Eschenbach says in quiet anger. "We need a place where we can rehearse and make chamber music projects and educational activities. It is important for an orchestra to have a home."

This season's 'Ring' is a challenge for which Eschenbach is well prepared. He has known Wilson for 20 years, they have been talking about this production for five years and auditioning singers for three. A conductor who has sometimes been faulted for his rapid tempi, Eschenbach doesn't worry about Wilson's notoriously slow pacing:

"No, one has to make a counterpoint to that. As he doesn't like doubling in word and gesture, I don't like doubling in music, so one interprets the other and it's very exciting."

Eschenbach hasn't the time to enlarge his piano repertoire but as a fast learner has a wide orchestral range. Even so, there are surprising additions, such as 'Amazing Grace' with Renée Fleming on the still-smoldering site of the World Trade Center in 2001.

The occasion was a memorial service for which Eschenbach and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, called in at the last moment, also played Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. "It was still smoking. They were spraying it with water but the water was so noisy they had to stop and after a while we almost fainted."

The scene brought back to Eschenbach the horrors of 1945 and the small boy who so barely survived. There were no firemen's hoses then, but water is his metaphor for music. "It is an endless fountain for myself, this music," he says. "Like a fountain, it is always renewed."

Copyright © 2005 International Herald Tribune