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.
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