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.