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Christoph Eschenbach: Husband To A Hundred

Christoph Eschenbach is both a pianist and a conductor.
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Christoph Eschenbach is both a pianist and a conductor.

Washington D.C.'s National Symphony Orchestra has a new conductor, and he's being welcomed like a rock star. His dark, piercing eyes and shaved head are splashed across the sides of city buses and on billboards around town. Some of the classical music world's biggest names performed at his opening-night concert last weekend.

The 70-year-old Christoph Eschenbach has been called both brilliant and erratic, but never bland.

His debut as the NSO's new conductor was as much a celebration as a performance. The stage was festooned with enormous bouquets of white flowers. Some of the women in the orchestra were wearing brightly colored ball gowns instead of the usual black attire. It almost felt like a wedding.

For Eschenbach, a conductor's relationship with his orchestra is a bit like a marriage. Only, as he says, it's "a marriage with a hundred people."

His last marriage, to the famed Philadelphia Orchestra, was a stormy one, lasting only five years. When his contract expired in 2008, management chose not to renew it. Some of the musicians there complained about his overly dramatic interpretations and unpredictability.

That didn't seem to bother the National Symphony Orchestra, which was looking for a new music director. Marissa Regni, the principal second violinist with the NSO and a co-chair of the search committee, says choosing a conductor is always a huge leap of faith.

"We are 100 completely different individuals," Regni says. "What might not have been the best fit elsewhere does not in any way not mean it's going to be great for us."

Playing Many Parts

Eschenbach says he may be the boss, but that he has to play many roles -- father, diplomat and psychologist.

"It's not only that the conductor beats on a gray mass of people, but it's a human organism of artists," he says. "These artists also have to say something."

On the podium, Eschenbach is anything but flamboyant. He slices the air with small, sharp gestures. What the audience can't always see is his face.

"He has a very intense gaze about him," Regni says. "His eyes are very piercing, and it sort of at first sets you back a little."

"Through the eye comes very much of what you want to say," Eschenbach says.

In fact, he's famous for conducting Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" with his eyes alone. He's also famous for noticing and nurturing new talent.

Himself a concert pianist, Eschenbach spotted the Chinese prodigy Lang Lang at an audition in Chicago 11 years ago. The pianist was just 17, and not well known outside of Asia. Lang says Eschenbach has been a mentor and friend ever since.

"He's my second father," he says.

Another Eschenbach protege, soprano Renee Fleming, performed at his opening-night concert last Saturday. Fleming says there are basically two kinds of conductors.

"They're either extremely self-absorbed, and also, to be fair, busy," she says, "or they are willing to take the time and work. In his case, he works with young conductors and musicians. He'll hire them and bring them back and help them explore repertoire. He's very generous that way."

Eschenbach says he's just doing what his own mentors -- the legendary conductors Herbert von Karajan and George Szell -- did for him when he was starting out.

A Long, Steep Climb

Eschenbach's journey to a musical career was not easy. He was born in Nazi Germany in 1940. His mother died giving birth to him. His father was a musicologist and an outspoken opponent of the regime who died in one of Hitler's punishment battalions during World War II. After the war, his mother's cousin found young Eschenbach alone, living in a refugee camp. He was ill with typhus, lice-ridden and mute.

"Because I was so full of bad and terrible impressions, I was silent for a year," he says. "I couldn't speak anymore. I was closed."

The relative who had found him in the refugee camp, Wallydore Eschenbach, was a piano teacher. At night, she'd play Beethoven and Schumann and Chopin as little Christoph was drifting off to sleep. One day, she asked him if he'd like to learn the piano. He spoke his first word: yes.

"Music gave me the door, or the key to open the door of expression, to express myself and to free myself," he says.

Eschenbach says music can do a lot, both for those who play and those who listen.

"Music can invade you totally, and can speak all the languages of emotion to you," he says. "You can express all the language of emotion with that music."

In spite of his accomplishments at the piano, Christoph Eschenbach says he was drawn to conducting because he didn't want to spend so much time alone at the keyboard. He wanted to have a musical dialogue, a conversation in which the notes convey the full range of human experiences.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brigid McCarthy