Christoph Eschenbach can explain why pianists often make good conductors.
"They're more concerned with architecture and color than other instrumentalists," says the 51-year-old conductor, who will lead Germany's Bamberg Symphony in a Dvorak-Shostakovich program this Thursday at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. "As a pianist you are not satisfied with a 'bang-bang-bang' tone -- you want to sound like an oboe, a cello, a clarinet, a trumpet. It's wonderful preparation for the orchestra."
It may be that Eschenbach's right. Of the famous soloists who began to turn to conducting about 20 years ago -- there were also violinists, flutists and even singers -- it seems to be chiefly the pianists who have thrived. And of the three primary survivors -- the others are Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, music director of the Royal Philharmonic and the Radio Symphony of Berlin -- Eschenbach is considered by many aficionados to be the most gifted and tech- nically accomplished. He is a pianist- conductor in the sense that George Szell, Leonard Bernstein and Dmi- tri Mitropoulos were pianist-conductors -- not a moonlighting pianist, but a conductor who also plays the piano with artistry and skill.
But he's more than just a conductor -- he's also an orchestra builder. When Eschenbach inherited the music directorship of the Houston Symphony from Sergiu Comissiona more than three years ago, that organization was near financial and musical failure. Now musicians and music lovers in Houston are talking about a golden age that eclipses the days when the symphony's music directors numbered such men as Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli and Andre Previn. Eschenbach, says violinist Ray Fliegel, a 52-year veteran of the orchestra, is better than any of his predecessors.
"He's the epitome of what a fine conductor should be," says Fliegel, who served for 26 years as Houston's concertmaster and is now its principal second violin. "When he sings a phrase to you you are hard-pressed to duplicate it in quality. His baton technique is exemplary. He's supremely dedicated and he doesn't let up in intensity for a moment. But if something goes wrong in performance, his attitude is that we're human beings and that human beings make mistakes. We love him and when we play for him, the rosin flies."
Fliegel says the Houston players are in awe of some of Eschenbach's feats. During last season's Mozart marathon, for example, he conducted three Mozart operas and played and conducted from the keyboard six Mozart piano concertos from memory -- all in a single week.
But that feat does not seem so remarkable as the fact that Eschenbach has survived to make music at all.
He was born Christoph Ringmann, the son of a prominent musicologist whose young wife died giving birth to Eschenbach. Heribert Ringmann made no secret of his disdain for the Nazis and helped to save several Jewish friends and colleagues, many them now living in the United States. But he paid for that with his life -- he was stripped of his academic post at the University of Breslau and drafted. He died on the German-Russian front in 1942, leaving his 2-year-old son in the care of his grandmother.
For the next three years, the boy and his grandmother were one step behind the retreating German forces and one step ahead of the Russians, and the grandmother did not survive. Too weak to walk, sick with diphtheria and several other diseases, he would have died himself had it not been for a cousin of his mother's. Wallydore Eschenbach was convinced that her cousin's son was still alive and searched for him until she found him near death at a refugee camp in Mecklenburg.
"She was a music teacher and my first memories are of lying in bed sick upstairs and hearing her teach other children," Eschenbach says. "To me, music meant being well."
When the boy was strong enough, his new mother began to give him piano lessons. She took him at age 8 to Eliza Hansen, the best teacher in Hamburg and a student herself of the legendary Artur Schnabel and Edwin Fischer. But Eschenbach says he decided to become a conductor at the age of 11 when he heard Wilhelm Furtwangler conduct.
"There was an unforgettable experience!" he says. "I can still hear the orchestra's sound and still see how the musicians reacted to him."
By the time he was in his early 20s, he was considered the most important pianist to have emerged in Germany since the war. But he still wanted to become a conductor. He became a protege of Herbert von Karajan, who -- in turn -- introduced him to George Szell, the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. From 1966 until the conductor's death in 1970, Eschenbach assisted Szell at many of his European engagements, receiving -- in effect -- conducting lessons form one of the century's most exacting masters.
Through most of the 1970s, Eschenbach mixed his pianistic and conducting careers. In the 1980s, however, he began concentrating almost exclusively on the podium. He had successes with several major orchestras in this country, among them the Houston Symphony -- first in his debut and then a few months later when he stepped in for an indisposed Comissiona to rescue the orchestra's East Coast tour. Eschenbach, then music director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, had been looking for a North American post and -- as it happened -- the Houston-Comissiona marriage was on the rocks.
"He wanted an orchestra in the U.S. and Houston was the one available," says David Wax, the Houston Symphony's executive director. "It didn't hurt that his conducting had knocked everyone out and that the players adored him."
Eschenbach's popularity was to survive his making some important, often painful changes in the orchestra. In the first three years of his tenure, he hired several new principal players and replaced several section players.
"There is nothing more difficult or painful than to tell someone who's been a part of an orchestra for a long time that he's simply not good enough anymore," Eschenbach says.
But the improvement in the orchestra -- which made a successful tour of Japan last summer -- has been enormous, says violinist Fliegel.
"I used to wish for things to come out of the second violins that I never heard," he says. "Now, after all those years, they're coming out. Not a single interesting note goes by that this guy's not aware of."
The surprise to some people was that Eschenbach -- a sweet, shy man whose sad, enormous eyes make him resemble one of the children in a kitsch painting by Walter Keane -- was to become so effective a music director in so brash and expansive a place as Houston. American orchestras, unlike European ones, depend upon private money. And in order to raise that money, a major part of a music director's job is to become a public figure, a person whom people like and notice.
But within a month of becoming music director, Eschenbach's face was on a champagne bottle label, his social life was recorded regularly in gossip columns and his name was even pronounced properly -- its ESH-en-bok -- in the city's country clubs and mansions.
"I'm shy where one shouldn't use so many words -- but when I think there's an important purpose, I'm not very shy at all," Eschenbach says.
"Look, Christoph is not comfortable with large audiences -- but he's a wonderful mimic, he tells great stories and he's dynamite at a 10-person dinner party," Wax says. "If there were a job description for the perfect American music director, he'd fit it perfectly."
What: Mr. Eschenbach conducts the Bamberg Symphony in Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, with soloist Heinrich Schiff.
When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Naval Academy's Alumni Hall.
Tickets: $12 and $17.
Call: (301) 268-6060.