A recent visit to Christoph Eschenbach's office at the Kennedy Center presented a starkly contrasting image — the conductor all in black, his preferred color on and offstage, sitting on an intensely white leather sofa against white walls. Not a bad visual metaphor for the way Eschenbach is viewed in the music world.
Opinions about the new, German-born music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the first music director of the Kennedy Center (a post created for him) tend to come in black and white — praise for his distinctive style of conducting, or criticism for the idiosyncrasies.
During his first three weeks on the job, Eschenbach's touch could be felt in the rhythmic nuances he brought to chestnuts by Johann Strauss at the NSO's season-opening gala, the unusual variety of vividly expressive touches in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony a week later.
"Subtleties are very essential to me," Eschenbach said in his fluent, lightly accented English. "They widen the musical aspect in terms of the color palette, the way things are played. It is very important to get [those things] out of an orchestra. Otherwise, it would be boring."
One thing most people can surely agree on is that Eschenbach's tenure will not be boring.
It has started out comfortably. " Washington is a very nice city," the 70-year-old conductor said. "I have an apartment at the Watergate, which is very convenient. There is a pleasant atmosphere at the orchestra and [administration]. The audiences are very enthusiastic. So everything is coming together in a very good way."
Eschenbach, who succeeds Leonard Slatkin at the NSO, brings a wealth of artistic experience to the post. Orphaned by World War II and rescued from a refugee camp in 1946, he didn't speak for a year, until drawn out of his shell by music. He took his first piano lessons from his foster mother and went on to become a major keyboard artist. He also explored conducting, taking lessons from the legendary George Szell.
After his conducting debut in 1972, Eschenbach gradually carved out a second international career. He served as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra for 11 years; during the past decade, his posts included music director of the Orchestre de Paris and Philadelphia Orchestra.
The Philadelphia tenure had its rocky moments with some of the musicians and some in the local press, but that did not deter an overture from the NSO and the Kennedy Center.
"He's bringing great musicality and passion, a tremendous energy for creating great music-making," said Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser. "Our musicians love him."
Jauvon Gilliam, the NSO's principal timpanist, seconds that notion.
"I see everyone smiling," Gilliam said. "One of my colleagues said after the Beethoven concert, 'I love the fact that people love coming to work.' The audience can feel when we're having fun, when we really want to play. [Eschenbach] can come across as very demanding, but he's really warm and has a sense of humor that's kind of funny. He's very approachable. You don't always find that in a conductor, especially a music director. He's one of us."
Eschenbach likewise sounds upbeat. "The orchestra is very open-minded," he said. "An understanding of musical issues was reached very quickly."
Gilliam noted that Eschenbach is "very clear with how he expresses what he wants. But what he doesn't express can be just as effective," the timpanist said. "He doesn't just tell you what to do, like old-school conductors; he lets you express your own ideas."
For Eschenbach, interpretive freedom and individuality are to be embraced, not feared. No wonder he often works with Lang Lang, the popular pianist who performed at the NSO gala (soprano Renee Fleming, another Eschenbach fan, also starred). Lang Lang routinely gets criticized for being indulgent, too personal.
"I think there's a lot of jealousy and envy," Eschenbach said with a smile. "He's just brilliant in whatever he does. And he loves playing. I find it wonderful when a person shows enthusiasm about music."
For his part, Eschenbach shows enthusiasm, too. Although he can look severe and intense, it's impossible to miss the enjoyment he takes in the whole experience of giving life to the notes printed on a score.
When he isn't fine-tuning the NSO, Eschenbach will be defining his role as Kennedy Center music director. "This is one of the most fascinating arts institutions in the world," he said. "We'll see in the next weeks and months how I can help."
Kaiser said that Eschenbach has already been involved in the planning of projects for the center, including educational programming. "He and I are interested in figuring out how we can create programming that will bring 20-year-olds into the theater," Kaiser said.
"People complain all over the world about the situation of classical music, of no money or not enough young people in the audience," Eschenbach said. "But one can address those problems. One must go on the offensive. It is a matter of awakening the desire, to do something creative and positive. It's what we are here for. One just has to avoid the routine."