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Welcome home, Christoph

I’ve had plenty of chances to say what I think about the appointment of Christoph Eschenbach, who this weekend finally takes over as the NSO’s music director. So I thought, to welcome him, that it was time to step back and write a piece attempting to show who he is -- if not quite in his own words, then certainly from his side, letting people get to know him so they can decide about him for themselves. The result, in this weekend’s magazine, is now online: Ready for the Upbeat: Can Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra give each other a fresh start?
(read more after the jump)

Researching and writing this story made me think a lot about the role of a critic and the way that stories are perceived. Nearly everyone who reads a critic’s work tends to boil it down into positive or negative, however nuanced one tries to be. I’ve written a couple of reviews of Eschenbach that people doubtless took as a sign that I was “against” Eschenbach, and this new article (written as a reporter, not a critic), will likely be seen as being “for” Eschenbach. It’s hard oneself to keep from assuming such facile labels. (I wrote not long ago about critical bias; our preferences do define our work as critics.) But there’s a lot more to a concert review than the pro or the con: one hopes for a thoughtful and nuanced appraisal that allows the reader to get a sense of what happened beyond the mere fact of whether the critic did or didn’t like it -- even if most artists, reading it, are likely to read "nuance" as simply "negative."

Everyone agrees on a couple of things about Eschenbach: he is a lovely man, and a committed musician. That’s a part of the picture. It’s not something I necessarily emphasize each time I appraise his work in a review. But it is something that Washington audiences, in particular, should be aware of as they get to know him. Another point of agreement: we all hope (and I hope I can say this without betraying my critical objectivity) that this partnership with the NSO turns out to be a wonderful thing for everyone -- including, ultimately, Washington audiences.

A story like this goes through many drafts and edits as it takes on its final form (and a production error led to a glitch in one key paragraph in the printed version of the story). There are things I would have liked to include that didn’t make it in for reasons of space; and at this point it's hard for me to say what exactly comes across. But a main point I wanted to make concerned the quality of interaction that Eschenbach had developed with the soloists he appears with regularly. At Ravinia this summer, with Renee Fleming and Tzimon Barto, he was going for a kind of intimate communication that really did transcend the practical or even the musical, and he did it with total sincerity and total abandon. Whether you do or don't like the result, that quality of involvement is something rare, and distinctive, and worth having.

By Anne Midgette  | September 23, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Washington, random musings  
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I found the comments on Eschenbach with respect to Renee Fleming illuminating. I have heard Eschenbach conduct only once; it was at the Metropolitan Opera several years ago when Fleming sang the title role in Arabella. Other than the commercial recording and various live performances with Lisa Della Casa, no one sings the role as well as Fleming, and Eschenbach lavished so much care on the score, especially her part, that one was convinced that the two of them had been collaborating for decades.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | September 23, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

I deeply appreciated the mention in the previous comment above of Lisa Della Casa. As a graduate student in Germany, I was fortunate enough to hear her sing the role of "Arabella" in Richard Strauss's opera of the same name in the fall of 1969 at the Munich State Opera. Unfortunately, this wonderful opera has never (to my knowledge) been performed in Washington.

But back to Eschenbach. The chorus in which I have sung for 23 years (The Washington Chorus) sang the Verdi Requiem with Maestro Eschenbach last spring. I was struck by the fact that he conducted by memory, and felt that the much slower and softer opening tempi and dynamics were a great improvement over many other performances. But my admiration for him stems from what happened after the final performance, when several of us stopped to congratulate him and ask him to autograph our Verdi scores. I welcomed him to Washington "auf deutsch" and asked him he would graciously sign - he wrote "Vielen Dank! Christoph Eschenbach" with the exact date, also in German. Then I asked whether he had ever been back in the city of his birth (Breslau), now Wroclaw, Poland, and I offered to make a set of photos from the sparkling newly restored city which I had visited and photographed in the summer of 2003. He immediately softened and whispered that he had been back to see it a few years ago, and I had the feeling that perhaps the memory of those childhood experiences of which Ms. Midgette has written so expressively and poignantly above were flowing back into his mind. So I came away from that "first encounter" with Maestro Eschenbach with a profound feeling of gratitude that Washington and its symphony will have abundant opportunities to create inspiring music with this conductor with a most unusual past, but a youthful heart and spirit. Let the music begin!

Posted by: reithl | September 23, 2010 11:25 PM | Report abuse

I'm very happy for the NSO. I loved having CE here in my area as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was sad to see him go.

Posted by: paullamon | September 24, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Anne, thanks for these thoughtful remarks. Mo. Eschenbach's qualities as you describe them were, I think, abundantly clear in the gala opening concert. As you say, we all hope for a successful tenure.

Posted by: mcooley | September 26, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

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