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Eschenbach's Energy

The National Symphony Orchestra isn't opening its season until next week. But tonight, the conductor who will take over as the NSO's music director next season -- in the fall of 2010 -- is starting his own final season at the Orchestre de Paris: Christoph Eschenbach, tonight and tomorrow, leads the Mahler 3rd, the beginning of the end of the conductor's multi-season focus on Mahler with this orchestra. The season will also see a celebration of the conductor's 70th birthday.

Eschenbach will only make one appearance with the NSO this season: he's leading a Verdi Requiem in March. But his schedule for the season seems punishing: he's appearing with 12 orchestras, many for more than one program, and going on no fewer than four tours (to Greece with the Orchestre de Paris, to China with the London Philharmonic, to Germany and Abu Dhabi with the Dresden Staatskapelle, and to the U.S. with the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra). And though he's repeating a few works with different ensembles (the Beethoven 7, the Dvorak 9), he's still offering a huge amount of music, from the Brahms and Bruckner 4th Symphonies to the violin concerti by Szymanowski and Berg to a whole mess of Mahler and Mozart -- some of which he is playing on the piano as well as conducting. He is also planning to spend some time in Washington to get a jump on his new role at the Kennedy Center, which is to go beyond simply leading the orchestra and include functioning as a general musical advisor.

The slightly frightening thing is that this workload is about par for the course for a major international conductor. But it does raise questions about a human's ability to sustain a high level of performance, week after week. Top-tier professional musicians, of course, are supposed to have extraordinary abilities. But the emphasis on music as product in an ever-faster world does seem to me to threaten, at times, the integrity of an art form that is based on taking a lot of time to say important things at considerable length and with considerable depth. Sometimes, musicians want to be praised simply for getting through it. But if that's all there is to it, we are losing the whole point of the exercise.

This is not meant as a particular criticism of Eschenbach, who is conscientious to a fault, though has been criticized in the past for seeming vague about the details of some of his concert programs. It's more a statement on a business that appears to be pushing people faster than they can, in some cases, reasonably operate.

By Anne Midgette  |  September 16, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , international , news  
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On a related front, I wish some enterprising label -- maybe Brilliant Classics? -- would release a mega slim box containing Eschenbach's recordings as a pianist. There are still a few Beethoven sonatas in the vault that EMI has yet to release (Eschenbach's Adagio sostenuto for the "Moonlight" sonata has got to be the slowest, and thereby the most gripping and revelatory, ever recorded), and there are many DG recordings (Haydn, Schubert, Chopin) that need to be reissued for the first time on CD. And then there are the many chamber recordings as well, some of which have been released by Sony Japan and no place else. Here's hoping that some imaginative execs read this post and hop to it.

Posted by: barrylyons | September 16, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

I think orchestras all over the world have lost their individual identities and suffered in other ways from the era of the peripatetic conductor. The Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NY Philharmonic, and maybe one or two others -- each developed its greatness with a single conductor who spent virtually the entire season with "his" orchestra, training it with a personal vision. French, German, Austrian, and British orchestras had their distinctive sounds. Today's conductors typically spend half or less of a season with their orchestras, which have largely become homogeneous or perhaps even homogenized. A pity.

Posted by: wsheppard | September 16, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I'm less concerned with the number of engagements as I am with the number of individual works performed by a conductor, or any other musician, for that matter. I can't believe that Eschenbach, or any other musician, can perform as many works, even warhorses he has probably conducted many times, and devote the time necessary to the re-study and re-appraisal of them.

It's all a function of the jet age; people were aghast at the perhaps-apochryphal story that Clifford Curzon learned the Rawsthorne Second Piano Concerto while he was flying from the U.S. to give the world premiere in the U.K. in 1951, thinking that he could not possibly have absorbed the music during the flight. As much as I wish that André Watts would broaden his repertoire, I appreciate that he has about 3-4 recitals' worth of material and a group of concerti which he plays all the time, and that he most likely feels that, even in his 60s, he still has more to learn from them. If Eschenbach can perform to the rigorous schedule he has for the upcoming season, more power to him; I can, however, certainly see the world from the Watts point of view.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | September 17, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

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