Christoph Eschenbach, who brought an uncommon, if not universally appreciated, musicality to the National Symphony Orchestra when he became music director in 2010, will step down at the end of the 2016-2017 season, after what will be a seven-year in the post.
He will then have an additional three-year term as conductor laureate, spending a minimum of two weeks with the NSO each of those seasons.
The announcement comes just days after New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert made a surprise announcement that he would relinquish his job, also in 2017, after eight years. With two plumb podiums in the U.S. now in play, speculation will go into overdrive.
In a statement released Wednesday morning by the NSO and the Kennedy Center, where the orchestra is a resident ensemble, Eschenbach said:
"I am proud of the legacy I leave and I am deeply grateful to the musicians who have joined with me to create an internationally prominent and unified ensemble. By 2017, I will have served as music director of American orchestras for almost 30 years, and it makes sense to step away from these obligations." (Eschenbach's 1988-1999 tenure with the Houston Symphony is still spoken of with great respect there by musicians.)
NSO board chairman Jeanne Ruesch said that Eschenbach "has successfully raised the artistic quality and standing of the National Symphony Orchestra."
In addition to upgrading the tone and responsiveness of the ensemble (he hired more than a dozen players), Eschenbach's tenure so far has included the commission or co-commission of 11 works, the majority by American composers, including George Walker, Peter Lieberson and Marc Neikrug. The NSO made tours with Eschenbach to South America, Europe and Oman.
The conductor, also a first-rate pianist, participated in chamber music programs with NSO players and appeared as accompanist with visiting artists. A probing performance of Schubert's "Winterreise" with baritone Matthias Goerne a few years ago was an indelible highlight.