Monday Musings: The value of National Symphony music director Christoph Eschenbach

So many factors go into the choice of an orchestra's music director these days. It often seems that music is actually pretty far down on the list.

I still recall with horror witnessing a League of American Orchestras session in 2004 when a panel of industry folks did a role-playing exercise to see how a fictional orchestra should deal with a fictional conductor.

His transgressions included being Russian-born with a limited command of English, limited interest in fundraising activities, limited knowledge of American repertoire, blah blah.

Oh, yes, he was also a great musician who really inspired the orchestra.

The prevailing attitude during the exercise was how that the guy had to go since, despite the artistic quality, he was obviously not a model modern music director for an American orchestra.

I have never forgotten that awful event -- and the badly disguised reference to then-Baltimore Symphony music director Yuri Temirkanov. But it was instructional about non-artistic agendas in the classical music business, agendas typically driven by the endless need to find money and build up audiences. Many people are willing to put music-making aside if it means an advantage in marketing, development, p.r., etc.

I am still old-school enough to believe that ...

the art should always come first. But I also recall how the BSO faced declining audiences and contributions during the Temirkanov era, despite all the galvanizing performances he generated. So I know it's tricky to strike a balance of goals and needs.

All things considered, I'd say the BSO found a workable balance with Marin Alsop's appointment. I'd say the National Symphony did, too, with the appointment of Christoph Eschenbach.

What I especially like about Eschenbach's arrival is that his selection seems to have been made almost exclusively from an artistic perspective, focusing on what he could do for and with the musicians. (I know there's was more to it -- there always is -- but I did say almost exclusively.)

And what Eschenbach has been doing is make the orchestra sound better. It seems to me, each time I make the trek to the Kennedy Center that the NSO is firmer, warmer, more full of personality. Sure, there still may be a ragged entrance here, an unfocused tone there, but the overall level is higher.

Eschenbach's value goes much deeper, though, at least in my book. There are other conductors who could get the orchestra to improve in various and important technical ways. But this man is also able to generate unusually interesting results onstage, thanks to a strongly individualistic streak.

You are not likely to mistake Eschenbach's Beethoven of Tchaikovsky for that of, say, his NSO predecessor, Leonard Slatkin, or Alsop or any number of others. Invariably, something happens that reveals Eschenbach's imprint on the score, not just the composer's.

Horrors, you say? Yes, I know some of you hate the notion of interpretive freedom. Sorry, but I see music as perpetually damp cement, always ready to accept a fresh signature that will then be wiped clean, waiting for the next interpreter.

I confess that I just love detecting Eschenbach's signature, even when it is relatively small -- perhaps a softer pianissimo than usual (like the one he called for a couple weeks ago early in Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet"), or a louder fortissimo, or a slightly broader pacing for a lyrical phrase in a score.

Invariably, I find myself affected, feeling more involved with the music, more grateful to be hearing it. That's how it was with Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 the other night.

In this case, it wasn't so much that Eschenbach, conducting from memory, applied all sorts of surprising personal touches to the music. The difference came in how deeply immersed he became in the notes, how he made them speak in freshly compelling ways.

The Adagio, which he molded with great sensitivity and a natural flow, proved emotionally gripping, with a terrific build up to the cymbal-accented climactic point. The Scherzo had terrific drive, the trio section remarkable charm. The outer movements bristled with drama.

In the end, the long symphony felt short. I'd call that a kind of magic, and further evidence of Eschenbach's artistic power.

It was wonderful, too, to hear Henze's orchestration of Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," especially given how sensitive Eschenbach was to the subtle Mahler-like coloring in the arrangement (contralto Nathalie Stutzmann was the subtle, penetrating soloist)

The evening was rewarding on many levels, even if there were some passages that would have been re-taken if this had been a recording session. Like I said, the NSO in not a flawless band (are there any?). But for intensity of focus, for expressive energy, this was a telling example of the orchestra's current level.

It was also one more example of how potent Eschenbach's guidance from the podium can be, how pivotal an agent he is in producing musical chemistry.


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