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NSO's New Leader: Daring Improviser or Musical Anarchist?

The news this morning that Christoph Eschenbach will be the new conductor and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra is certainly a relief for those who have worried that Washington's orchestra was entering into an extended period of drift.

Eschenbach, the German-born leader (until an unhappy parting last year) of The Philadelphia Orchestra, doesn't arrive full-force at the Kennedy Center until 2010, which means we will have several years in which to join the debate over his controversial approach. But controversy is likely a good thing for an orchestra that has seen its primacy in the region challenged by the hoopla surrounding Marin Alsop's arrival as leader of the Baltimore Symphony, which of course has made a major incursion into the NSO's turf with its new second home at Strathmore in Montgomery County.

Here's Eschenbach being interviewed and conducting Mahler with the Philadelphia:

The divide over Eschenbach's time in Philadelphia is sometimes portrayed as a matter of style (sometimes literally, as he favors informal, even cutting-edge fashion for his players to wear on stage) but is really a question of basic musical approach. The Philadelphia Inquirer's two (yes, amazingly, two) classical music critics have famously faced off over just what it was that led to the conductor's early departure. Critic Peter Dobrin accuses Eschenbach of producing a sound that came "precariously close to musical anarchy:" "Eschenbach seemed indifferent to the orchestra's unusual grasp of sound as an expressive tool, and his flexible tempo approach thrilled some critics and angered others."

Critic David Patrick Stearns, in contrast, turned the blame for the short tenure there on the orchestra, wondering whether anyone could have survived the "Viennese intrigue" that greeted a conductor who, unusually enough, likes to vary the tempo of a given piece of music from night to night, even on the same weekend. Stearns generously characterizes this tendency as re-creating "a piece in the moment," while Dobrin, apparently giving voice to the concerns of some orchestra members, often wrote of the Philadelphia as a band that had lost its core identity.

Critical battles aside, Eschenbach's arrival in Washington is vaguely reminiscent of that of Leonard Slatkin, who arrived to take over the NSO in 1994 and was greeted much as Michael Jordan was when he joined the Wizards--a big-name out-of-town star who would bring our hometown team much-needed buzz, energy, credibility and depth.

Like Slatkin, Eschenbach arrived in Philadelphia promising to take classical music to the region's youth (though critics there say that never really happened.) Like Slatkin, Eschenbach is promoted as a music director who will expand the repertoire and be a champion of new music (though in a very different way from Slatkin, who was a big booster of American composers.) Like Slatkin, Eschenbach has detractors who view him as shallow and slick.

But Eschenbach's style is, to his fans, more visionary, more radical than Slatkin's. A quick look through several dozen reviews of his performances with the Philadelphia finds several critics who will blast and worship Eschenbach in the very same piece, such as this New York Times review that calls his work "rough and impulsive" at one moment, but transcendent and daring in another.

The very good news for Washington music fans is that rather than a safe choice, the NSO has gone with someone who may well shake things up. It may be too much to hope that Eschenbach will break the NSO out of its dull cycle of standard works and create programs that challenge a complacent audience. But in his work standing before the orchestra, Eschenbach is someone who strives to make even the most familiar pieces sound new, and that is an artist's essential task.

By Marc Fisher |  September 26, 2008; 8:48 AM ET
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Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Classical music and the NSO in particular are hugely in need of foundational shakeup. Music must always be re-invented in every time. (Personal pet peeve: get rid of the Edwardian outfits!)
Having attended the most recent concert of the NSO that he conducted (featuring a young violinist) and listening to his recordings (one featuring music of Saaraiho), I feel his musicianship is beyond doubt. And making each concert unique is a highly laudable asset.
I do hope there is not a repeat of the Philly experience and I wonder how much input the musicians provided on this choice, and whether or not is was taken into consideration. It should have been.

Posted by: Patrick | September 26, 2008 9:38 AM

That Mahler clip was stunning! I love classical music, but haven't had time in recent years to see live concerts. This hire may cause me to get off my butt and go see the NSO!

Posted by: Henry | September 26, 2008 9:57 AM

I too was at the Eschenbach/NSO concert in February, and that Brahms First was the BEST I ever heard, live or recorded. The orchestra soared! If that concert had taken place at Nationals Stadium, it would have been bang-zoom go the fireworks. It looks like we're in for some really great music-making. The criticisms in Philadelphia just don't hold together musically and seems like overheated quibbling. When did flexibility and feeling become a bad thing in music?? So who have they got there now: Charles Dutoit. Not a step up for them, in my opinion. But a windfall for us!

Posted by: Larry | September 26, 2008 11:32 AM

Good appointment. I heard Alsop conduct the BSO in Bernstein and Mahler last night at Strathmore, and they sounded warm and vigorous with fine phrasing; she is a charmer, too, as demonstrated in nice remarks before the Bernstein and great podium presence. Competition between the NSO and BSO would be great for both and more intersting than that betweeen the hapless Nats and O's.

Posted by: Captiol Hill | September 26, 2008 11:43 AM

Thanks Marc for this interesting piece - I appreciate having some background on the man.

Posted by: mwb | September 26, 2008 12:19 PM

Good luck DC.

As a Philadelphia Orchestra subscriber, Eschenbach certainly did some things well, but his interpretations are all on the surface. He focuses on tempo, giving little thought to phrasing and balance.

Posted by: Thornhill | September 26, 2008 4:09 PM

Bravo! Back when Eschenbach conducted Houston, I went to concerts at least once a week. His concerts were fresh and exciting - never, ever boring. He has good ideas and an adventurous spirit, and I wish him and the NSO all the best.

Posted by: MelissaT | September 29, 2008 9:55 AM

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