Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001

When the Philadelphia Orchestra welcomes Christoph Eschenbach, 60, as its seventh music director in the 2003-04 season, the venerable ensemble will get a brilliant, dynamic musician with a broad range of musical and artistic interests. The orchestra will also acquire a very busy individual: he currently holds posts as Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris, the Hamburg NDR Symphony Orchestra, and the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. He has also served as the artistic director of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival for several years.

Programming-wise, Eschenbach has maintained a healthy balance between the new and old. He is particularly revered for his interpretations of the great, meaty romantic symphonies. But also conspicuous is his advocacy of central European modernists, from the Second Viennese School through Henze, Rihm, Reimann, Blacher and Ruzicka.

Approximately one-fourth of the 40-odd recordings in his active discography feature 20th-century composers. Two focus on contemporary American composers: the 1997 "Diapason d’Or" winning all-Christopher Rouse disc (Telarc) and a disc of the violin concertos of John Adams and Philip Glass. His lenghthiest music director post, with the Houston Symphony from 1988 to 1999, was marked by moderate tastes in contemporary and standard repertoire.

Houston Symphony

Eschenbach significantly broadened the repertory in Houston, with not only plenty of Beethoven and Brahms, but a whopping three recordings devoted to the Second Viennese School, including two Koch CDs, and a BMG release, Schoenberg Orchestrations. He founded the Houston Symphony Chamber Players which was notable for its 20th-century bias, as Houston Chronicle music critic Charles Ward has noted: “His survey with the Houston Symphony Chamber Players of pieces by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern showed that music of the Second Viennese School could touch listeners’ lives as deeply as the that of the first (whose members principally were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven).”

Eschenbach also lent his talents and support to a number of inventive organizations which flourished in Houston during the 90s, including the Houston Grand Opera, which he guest-conducted frequently, and the innovative ensemble OrchestraX, whose music director, John Axelrod was an Eschenbach protégé.

Beyond Houston

In other spheres, Eschenbach’s commitment to contemporary music has been commendable, if somewhat fastidious. In 2000, he spearheaded Music for a New Millennium: Seven Horizons, a project in which seven leading composers – Pintscher, Reimann, Rihm, Rouse, Ruzicka, Sheng, and Turnage – were commissioned to each write a new work. These were then given their world premieres in a single concert on January 2, 2000 by Eschenbach and the Hamburg NDR Symphony.

Along with regularly programming orchestral works by Christopher Rouse and Tobias Picker, Eschenbach led a major American music survey at the 2000 Schleswig-Holstein Festival. This three-week extravaganza featured Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Bang On A Can All-Stars with DJ Spooky and DJ Takemura (performing a Steve Reich/Philip Glass program titled "American Remix"), the Turtle Island String Quartet, and American repertoire performed by the Houston Symphony, Dawn Upshaw and many others.

In other respects, he has largely drawn his musical loyalties along a European bent. His four Schnittke concerti CDs with the violinist Gidon Kremer, all recorded for Teldec with the composer’s endorsement, are characteristic. Similarly, at the 1999 Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Eschenbach organized “Ligeti 1999” a summer-long retrospective of the Hungarian composer’s oeuvre.

The good news for Philadelphia is the fact that, having arrived at the conducting profession relatively late in life (he has tread a second career path as a concert pianist), Eschenbach is not yet creatively exhausted. That said, some question whether his jet-set lifestyle will allow him sufficient time and focus for implementing a lively artistic vision. One hopes that his tentative explorations into American music will only further materialize during his tenure in Philadelphia.

From Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001
by Brian Wise
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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