Thursday, January 17, 2008

Christoph Eschenbach

The rumor about Christoph Eschenbach taking over the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington is very, very intriguing.

Eschenbach is a very weird conductor, but the National Symphony is a very weird orchestra. After thirty years of Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony needs to hire a conductor steeped in the Central European repertory and tradition. The National Symphony also needs a conductor capable of raising the standards of ensemble and musicianship. Eschenbach raised standards across the board in Houston, and I believe he might be able to do the same thing in Washington. A National Symphony/Eschenbach partnership just might work. I hope the rumor becomes fact.

One caution I have is that I doubt that Eschenbach and Michael Kaiser could get along. Both are strong-willed individuals, and I cannot see Eschenbach subjecting himself to Kaiser’s authority.

Kaiser is head of the Kennedy Center. Shortly after his arrival at the Kennedy Center, Kaiser insisted upon the Kennedy Center taking effective control over the National Symphony. The National Symphony’s finances are now subsumed under the Kennedy Center’s, and its artistic planning is now under Kennedy Center control. Kaiser’s authority is so extensive that he even influences the orchestra’s programming and the guest conductors that the orchestra engages.

Will Eschenbach subject himself to Kaiser’s meddling? That question, I suspect, will be the overriding issue in Eschenbach’s decision whether to take on the National Symphony.

Eschenbach was elbowed aside in Philadelphia and Paris and now has no orchestra to call his own. Eschenbach wants and needs his own orchestra, because he is not an especially effective guest conductor. He is a very individual artist and, for him to impose his personal musical vision upon a group of musicians, he needs to work with that ensemble on a long-term basis.

I always thought it was ironic that, several years ago, Christoph Eschenbach wanted the Cleveland Orchestra above all, and Franz Welser-Most wanted the Philadelphia Orchestra above all. Instead, Welser-Most got Cleveland and Eschenbach got Philadelphia.

For Eschenbach, things did not work out. Eschenbach simply and clearly was not suited for Philadelphia. While I was an undergrad and while I was in law school, I heard Eschenbach conduct Philadelphia several times, and there was unmistakably a tug of war going on between him and the musicians. There was no point in trying to salvage a partnership that was so doomed from the start. The Philadelphia Orchestra Board Of Trustees, and not Eschenbach and not the musicians, is the entity at fault for hiring a conductor so unsuited for the Philadelphia Orchestra in the first place.

With the right orchestra, Eschenbach can do interesting work. He might be just the candidate to shape the National Symphony into an admirable ensemble.

I hope Eschenbach takes the Washington job. He might revitalize the National Symphony, and bring back the musical public to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


  1. C.E. is weird. Very weird.

    I heard him conduct the CSO, in 2003, Berlioz's "Fantastique", I think it was.

    After the performance, he looked like Napoléon after conquering a major battle. So pompous and very arrogant, too. I don't like him. He scares me.

    Andrew: Have a terrific weekend. I hope your friend will love Minnesota. But then again, what's not to love about the Twin Cities? Joshua and you live there, for crying out loud.

    Take care,

  2. Yeah, he is weird, isn't he?

    However, sometimes a second-level ensemble can be transformed by someone like Eschenbach. He transformed Houston.

    I hope your weekend is terrific, too, J.R. We should have a wonderful visit, despite the cold.

    Thank you for your wishes.

  3. Eschenbach was a disaster here in Philadelphia. Not only did he lose the orchestra, he lost the audience.

    Andrew, I don't think Eschenbach would be successful in Washington. I don't think anyone could be successful in Washington. That orchestra is a graveyard for conductors.

  4. The last time I heard Eschenbach was at the 2006 Proms. He brought the Philadelphia Orchestra over to play Beetoven's Fifth and Tchaikovsky's Fifth. Both pieces were distorted, pulled out of shape and twisted every which way. They were peculiar performances, emotionally vapid, and the long line was totally lost.

    Underneath all that peculiarity, I could still hear a fabulous orchestra, trying to get out from under such willful, unmusical conducting.

    I can't see Eschenbach taking the Washington job. That orchestra is too far off the international map for such a high-profile conductor.


  5. I can't see Christoph Eschenbach heading to Washington. The National Symphony is a terrible orchestra, and the conductor of the National Symphony is not a prestigious appointment, despite its presence in a major city. This is too far a come-down for someone once conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre De Paris.

    It is interesting that Welser-Most and Eschenbach each got the other's favored appointment. Both would have been successful in Cleveland, but neither one would have worked out in Philadelphia. I think I could have lived with Eschenbach in Cleveland, but Welser-Most is even better. Welser-Most does not do things differently simply for the sake of being different. In this respect, he is unlike Eschenbach.

    Philadelphia needs to seek out one of the younger Russian conductors, like Jurowski or Boreyko, which is rumored to happen. Fortunately, the management in Philadelphia, like the management in Cleveland, recognizes that no American candidates are good enough for a great orchestra. In this respect, gross mistakes like the New York Philharmonic (Alan Gilbert) and Baltimore Symphony (Marin Alsop) choices are unlikely to happen in Philadelphia.

    I hear from physician friends in Atlanta that Robert Spano is floundering. I hear that his performances are inept, that the orchestra's quality has declined substantially since the Yoel Levi years, and that the musical public is staying away in droves. The new concert hall in Atlanta was supposed to be almost finished by now, and yet the project has regressed back to the planning stages. Blame is spread all the way around, from Spano and Runnicles being fingered, to the Atlanta board, to Vulgamore. What do you hear? Spano was a terrible, terrible choice to succeed Levi. The Atlanta Board was sold a bill of goods in picking him up. I am told that Spano's agents, despite all the work in the world, have been unable to secure foreign engagements for him. Spano got a very rare and very unimportant overseas engagement in Scotland last summer, and I am told he laid a major egg with critics and audiences alike. Time for Atlanta to get its act together and bring in someone good.

    What do you hear about Robertson in St. Louis? I hear mixed reports. Some say he is doing excellent work. Some say he is the worst conductor now working in America.

    I say, worse than Marin Alsop? Is that possible?

    Again, I commend you on your blog. You are a very bright, engaging young man. Your writing is vivid, critical and a pleasure to read. Above all, your writing is extremely precise, and very elegant, and refined to a "T". Writing is a great gift you have.

  6. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Franz Welser-Moest continues to be anathema to the monopolizing Mr. Rosenberg, a situation that has long since surpassed the description of ‘inexplicable,’ at least in the minds of the conductor’s admirers, whose numbers have increased. It’s easy to imagine some unorthodox salutations coming into Mr. Rosenberg’s inbox these days: “Dear Hanslick,” for instance --- or worse, “Dear Claudia” . . ..
    Together with Mr. Rosenberg, some other American critics all but (yawn!) trashed the conductor after performances last October at Carnegie Hall; yet, after seeing the river of rapturous praise from European critics over the very same program(s) some weeks later, I suppose any reader of these reviews could be forgiven if he considered the compilation, accessible at the Cleveland Orchestra’s web-site, to be some kind of elaborate hoax --- even without having a clue about the growing, parochial American consensus. After all, no orchestra and conductor could be that good, right? Mr. Rosenberg’s printed reaction to the Europeans was almost embarrassingly telling. His only real defense was to quote Larry Lash’s article in Musical America, “Snoring through Mahler.” But I fear Mr. Lash, an American (surprise!) living in Vienna, has unintentionally indicted himself as being every bit as self-serving as Anthony Tommasini.
    Mr. Rosenberg, however, has hit (without thoroughly embracing) one gargantuan truth on the head: He has admitted the widening, more substantial yawn between European and American esthetics, a phenomenon I suspect is at the heart of this critic’s discontent.
    But maybe this is why the Cleveland orchestra is the only American ensemble that visits Europe every year, instead of every four years, which is the norm of every other (major) American orchestra.
    Whence this trans-Atlantic, esthetic gulf? I am ignorant.
    Whatever the case, Mr. Rosenberg and other provincial types can lie back and enjoy their Maxwell House cups of coffee. I’ll do the same, though I myself prefer Tshibo.

  7. Dan:

    I have no idea whether Eschenbach would work out in the event he goes to Washington.

    I do think Eschenbach is a serious conductor, and a serious musician. However, in no way do I think he is The Second Coming. His interpretations are often odd, and he seems to go for “the inspiration of the moment”, which does not always come off.

    I agree that the orchestra in Washington presents any conductor with a difficult situation. It may be true that no conductor could be successful there.

    However, management bears a large portion of the blame for the orchestra’s current situation. Slatkin was kept on far too long—in fact, he was kept on for years beyond the point at which it was clear, to everyone, that he was not working out. It was Kaiser who made the decision to shove Slatkin aside, and that was a decision that needed to be made, even if it came seven or eight years too late.

    Rostropovich was kept on far too long, too. Rostropovich had nothing to offer outside the realm of Russian music, and the quality of the orchestra’s ensemble was not good during his too-long tenure.

    Given what has happened for the last thirty years, I think the National Symphony has no realistic choice but to seek out a conductor who has mastered the Central European repertory. There are not that many available candidates out there who fit the bill, and Eschenbach is one of those available candidates.

    The National Symphony could do worse.


  8. Calvin:

    I agree with you: the National Symphony Orchestra is a step down from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre De Paris.

    However, are other orchestras looking at Eschenbach? I don’t think so. If Eschenbach wants an orchestra, there are not many options available to him.

    And I continue to believe that, if he wants to do his best work, Eschenbach needs his own orchestra. The life of a guest conductor is not a good one for him, because he needs more than three or four rehearsals to get what he wants from the musicians. Guest conducting cannot be that satisfying an endeavor for him.

    If it comes down to Eschenbach having no orchestra, and Eschenbach having the National Symphony, he very well may decide to give the Washington post a try, even though it is less prestigious than his previous posts.

    One never knows.


  9. Robert:

    Well, as I mentioned immediately above, perhaps taking a perceived step down is the only way Eschenbach will be able to have his own orchestra (assuming he continues to want his own orchestra, an assumption I make).

    It IS interesting that Eschenbach and Welser-Most each obtained the appointment most sought by the other. I agree with you: Eschenbach probably would have been a success in Cleveland (but perhaps not as successful as Welser-Most). Unlike you, I have no idea how Welser-Most might have fared in Philadelphia. However, I suspect that he would have fared somewhat better than Eschenbach.

    It will be interesting to see whom Philadelphia goes after. I am told that Jurowski is on the Philadelphia short list. However, with respect to Boreyko, I wonder whether Boreyko is too young for Philadelphia. That said, I am told that Boreyko is the real thing. He makes his Minneapolis debut next season, and I plan not to miss it.

    The only thing I hear about Atlanta is that longer-term subscribers are dropping out and not being replaced, and that attendance has become a serious problem. I am told that, even on Friday and Saturday evenings, only 850 tickets per concert are sold and that the rest of the house is heavily papered (and yet nowise full). That suggests to me that Atlanta may not have a large enough audience to warrant erecting an expensive new concert hall.

    The Atlanta Board Of Trustees and Vulgamore and Pierre Ruhe all seem to be in Spano’s corner, so his job appears to be secure. However, outside of Atlanta, Spano’s career is clearly going nowhere.

    I hear two things about Robertson and Saint Louis: that the orchestra is not playing well, and that the Saint Louis Symphony keeps Robertson’s name in the papers daily. Consequently, and at least locally, Robertson has been a public-relations success in Saint Louis. Elsewhere, Robertson’s career, like Spano’s, is clearly going nowhere.

    I share your views about Marin Alsop. It will be interesting to see how things play out in Baltimore.

    Thank you, Robert, for your kind comments. At the very least, I try to keep spelling errors and grammatical lapses down to a minimum. However, Henry James I’m not.


  10. Danen:

    Yes, it is regrettable that the music critic of the Plain-Dealer is channeling Claudia Cassidy. This makes me disbelieve everything he writes, and surely I am not alone in this regard.

    Did you know that, before Georg Solti accepted his post with the Chicago Symphony, the Chicago Symphony Board Of Trustees had obtained, in advance, a behind-the-scenes agreement with Claudia Cassidy’s editors that guaranteed that Solti would receive only worshipful reviews from her? Cassidy was instructed to treat Georg Solti as the second coming of Fritz Reiner, and she duly stepped into line, voluntarily or not. Perhaps something similar is needed in the case of Donald Rosenberg.

    I do not read every single Rosenberg review, but I read him about half the time. I caught a couple of his reviews that I thought were entirely out of line. I especially recall the gleeful manner in which he covered Welser-Most’s performance of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto.

    In a case in which a local critic dislikes the work of a local ensemble’s primary conductor, the critic can do irreparable harm if the matter is not handled skillfully.

    I think that Tim Page at the Washington Post got it exactly right. Tim Page disliked Leonard Slatkin’s work with the National Symphony, despite the fact that he and Slatkin had worked together successfully in Saint Louis.

    Instead of browbeating Slatkin every week, however, Page would generously praise what Slatkin did well and very gently point out what Slatkin did not do so well. In the process, Page harmed the fortunes of neither the orchestra nor Slatkin. Experienced Washington Post readers could nonetheless ascertain, between the lines, what Page thought of Slatkin and his work with the orchestra. It was the perfect way to address the situation.

    Why do so many American critics fail to acknowledge the excellence of Welser-Most? Welser-Most and Lorin Maazel are the two finest conductors currently heading American orchestras, and yet neither of these two conductors can buy a good review in the U.S.

    In the case of Welser-Most, Welser-Most is a “cool” conductor and a “cool” musician, and many Americans prefer “hot” conductors and “hot” musicians. This may explain part of the antipathy to him in certain American circles.

    Many American music-lovers also like lots of surface excitement and lots of flashy podium maneuvers during a concert. Welser-Most provides neither to his audiences.

    American concert-goers have also because accustomed to—and have even started to expect, if not demand—that conductors adopt a “just folks” public façade, and give inane little talks to the audience during the course of the concert, providing “explanations” of the music. Welser-Most, happily, doesn’t play this game, either.

    Finally, another development has occurred in the last ten to fifteen years, and this development is the crux of the matter, I believe: the American musical scene has become more and more provincial, and more and more contentious. I attribute this to the current generation of American music writers, which is not knowledgeable about music or musical performance and which is largely agenda-driven, relentlessly promoting American composers and American musicians at the expense of their European counterparts. In our so-called music capital, New York, now that Peter G. Davis has been shown the door at New York magazine, there is not a single writer on music, in the daily newspapers or in the weekly magazines, that has any business writing about music. Alas, this situation is not going to change anytime soon.

    You point out that Rosenberg wrote an inaccurate article about the Cleveland Orchestra’s reception during its most recent European tour. I read Rosenberg’s article at the time it was published, and I knew at the time I read the article that it was total nonsense. I had read the European reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra’s tour online, while the tour was under way, and I knew that the orchestra’s reception had been greatly positive, if not laudatory.

    Such misleading accounts are not uncommon in American newspapers these days. Another recent example of an account of a foreign tour that lacked a single syllable of truthfulness appeared in the Boston Globe in September. At the conclusion of the Boston Symphony’s Summer 2007 European tour, Jeremy Eichler wrote an entirely fictitious account of the tour, claiming that Boston had triumphed throughout Europe’s musical capitals. In fact, the Boston Symphony received middling-to-negative reviews throughout that tour for its level of ensemble and level of musicianship and sound quality, and James Levine’s personal critical reception during that tour did not even arise to the level of “middling”. This information was concealed, however, from readers of the Globe, who were informed, inaccurately and unaccountably, that its local orchestra had been received with great acclaim in Europe.

    I attended one of the Boston Symphony’s 2007 Proms concerts. The orchestra was not good, the conductor was not good, attendance in the hall was not good, and the reviews of that concert were not good (but the reviews for the concert I attended were not as bad as the reviews for the previous night’s Boston concert, featuring the music of Berlioz, a concert I did not attend).

    Rosenberg or no Rosenberg, however, most American music-lovers appreciate Welser-Most, I believe. Welser-Most is a conductor of incomparable quality, and most people surely recognize this, and recognize this instantly. The New York Times may offer as many negative reviews about Welser-Most as it wishes, but most music-lovers surely see through the reviews. Such reviews merely reinforce upon knowledgeable readers how ignorant American music critics are. I know no music lover in the Twin Cities—and no music lover elsewhere, for that matter—who does anything other than snicker at the music criticism that appears in the New York Times.

    I totally agree with you about the enormous gulf in music aesthetics between Europe and the United States. However, short-term, this gulf is destined to widen, not narrow, I fear. The immediate result is that fewer and fewer European musicians will bother to perform here, and fewer and fewer European composers will bother to attempt to build an American audience. This is our loss.

    Do you believe that Rosenberg will ultimately drive Welser-Most from Cleveland? I think he will.

    I thank you for your comments.


  11. Thank you, Andrew, for taking the time to reply to my comment, especially considering my rudeness in veering from the topic of your original post; and thank you for ignoring my embarrassing, misspelled words.

    I did not know about the subterfuge surrounding Solti’s arrival in Chicago. It’s sickening. Such journalistic ethics remind me of the first time I began to question Donald Rosenberg’s integrity about three years ago. Rosenberg wrested a comment from the context of a Los Angeles Times review that was clearly intended as a compliment to Franz Welser-Moest and then used that comment as a weapon against the conductor. Equally outrageous in my mind was the thundering silence among the Plain Dealer readership in the wake of Rosenberg’s column.

    Will Rosenberg drive FWM out of Cleveland? My greatest fear is that Franz will ask to be released from his current contract in 2010, ostensibly because of his new duties in Vienna. If that happens, the rest of us will know the real reason.

    Your blog is a cornucopia of truth and precision of the expression of truth, Andrew.

    I wish you and Joshua and your family happy times in New York next month.


  12. Thank you, Andrew, for taking the time to reply to my comment, especially considering my rudeness in veering from the topic of your original post; and thank you for ignoring my embarrassing, misspelled words.

    I did not know about the subterfuge surrounding Solti’s arrival in Chicago. It’s sickening. Such journalistic ethics remind me of the first time I began to question Donald Rosenberg’s integrity about three years ago. Rosenberg wrested a comment from the context of a Los Angeles Times review that was clearly intended as a compliment to Franz Welser-Moest and then used that comment as a weapon against the conductor. Equally outrageous in my mind was the thundering silence among the Plain Dealer readership in the wake of Rosenberg’s column.

    Will Rosenberg drive FWM out of Cleveland? My greatest fear is that Franz will ask to be released from his current contract in 2010, ostensibly because of his new duties in Vienna. If that happens, the rest of us will know the real reason.

    Your blog is a cornucopia of truth and precision of the expression of truth, Andrew.

    I wish you and Joshua and your family happy times in New York next month.


  13. Thank you, Dane, for your kind words and your kind wishes.

    Like you, I worry about Welser-Most leaving Cleveland.

    I am told that the Cleveland Board Of Trustees is fully behind Welser-Most, and fully appreciates the work he is doing in Cleveland, and intends to try to keep him in Cleveland as long as possible.

    However, I am also told that Welser-Most is very unhappy about his treatment in the American press, and that he cannot understand why American critics are so hostile to him. It would have to be extremely irritating, if not grating, to be mauled by the very same persons who lavish praise upon Marin Alsop, of all persons!

    With respect to Claudia Cassidy, I am told that Solti wanted the Chicago job very much, but that Solti told the Chicago Board that Cassidy, for twenty years, had driven every conductor out of town except Fritz Reiner, and that Solti expected Cassidy to try to drive him out of town, too.

    Solti apparently told the Chicago Board that he would be delighted to take the Chicago job if, and only if, Cassidy was taken off the orchestra beat. It was because of Solti's (probably justified) fears about Cassidy that Board members quietly approached Cassidy's publishers and explained the situation to them, and reached a behind-the-scenes agreement.

    Please keep in mind that, at the time of the events, Cassidy had just driven Jean Martinon from Chicago. Everybody, in all quarters, was probably tired of her rampages against conductors she disliked, and she probably needed to be told that she could not keep running conductors out of town.

    All the best to you, and I thank you for your comments.