′Feeling German′ in Washington′s National Symphony Orchestra | Music | DW | 06.09.2013
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'Feeling German' in Washington's National Symphony Orchestra

Few German conductors have worked with American orchestras as intensively as Christoph Eschenbach, who has lent new energy to the capitol's National Symphony Orchestra.

Christoph Eschenbach (c) Scott Suchman

Christoph Eschenbach

Christoph Eschenbach is among the conductors who seem to gain more charisma and effectiveness with age. Audiences could sense that in Washington at his final concert of the season with the National Symphony Orchestra. The conductor held together the immense orchestral apparatus of Dmitry Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 with unbelievable ease. Concentrated, with his wits about him, Eschenbach stands solid as a rock amidst the masses of sound that Shostakovich organized in his score.

When Christoph Eschenbach made the leap to the conductor's podium in 1972, he was already a successful pianist and Lieder accompanist. He made his own way to the baton in a way unlike other conducting cross-over cases.

Eschenbach and America

Christoph Eschenbach (c) Scott Suchman

Solid as a rock - Christoph Eschenbach during a recent performance

That path led him not just to German and European orchestras, but to American ensembles in particular. Starting in 1988, he led the Houston Symphony Orchestra for more than ten years. As a director of the renowned Ravinia Festival and as principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he went on to head some of the most respected orchestras in the US.

Two and a half years ago in Washington, Eschenbach assumed leadership of an orchestra that was a regular in the famous Kennedy Center but whose reputation left something to be desired.

Laying the groundwork

Eschenbach worked intensively, making a startling amount of progress in a short time, as he told DW: "What I find really exciting with the orchestra is - apart from all of its musicality and musical ability - the blossoming personalities in it, and they have all really flourished."

At first glance, Eschenbach's approach to the repertoire is less exciting than his work with the musicians. He sticks often to classical and romantic pieces, occasionally creeping into the 20th century for a work by Shostakovich. But his audience will be hard pressed to find contemporary music on the program.

Last year's playbill included works such as Wagner's "Liebestod" and Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet." What might have been just another mixed program elsewhere took the form of an almost cinematic event here, with a compelling musical arc and high musicality.

Fading distinctions

American and European orchestras hardly differ these days, say the conductor. Such was not always the case. "50 years ago, there was once a big difference. People said the American orchestras were quite virtuosic but somewhat cool, while European orchestras played in a more warm-hearted way but with less precision. That's changed thanks to the media and touring. The continents have grown closer. Now European orchestras aren't clumsy at all, nor do American orchestras play coolly."

Christoph Eschenbach (c) Scott Suchman

Eschenbach joined the National Symphony Orchestra in 2010

Eschenbach's musicians appreciate his friendly and decisive approach - and his German roots. To concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, Eschenbach embodyies the German musical tradition. Playing German music in the Kennedy Center and "feeling German" in doing so is the best part, she said.

Something to learn

Janet Brown, whose family is among the circle of donors offering significant financial support to the orchestra, says Washington is to be envied for its resident conductor. Among the qualities expected of a German maestro in the US are an ambitious, detail-oriented approach that fosters musical discipline among the performers, she added.

Eschenbach and the orchestra have private donors to thank for a great deal. Quite unlike European orchestras, more than 95 percent of the budget has to be earned through ticket sales and sponsorship. When in Washington, Eschenbach spends up to four evenings with donors each week.

So although the musical differences between American orchestras and their German counterparts are few, the financial models are radically different. "There has to be a huge apparatus behind the orchestra that drums up the money. In Europe, it's not that way, but there, too, money is getting tight. So we will have to learn a thing or two from the American approach," Eschenbach said.

Enticing donors

The U.S. Capitol illuminates at dusk on Capitol Hill (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Donors say Washington is lucky to have Eschenbach

The orchestra regularly invites its supporters to listen in at rehearsal. More than 40 turned up recently, taking seats next to the musicians on stage.

"I think that's wonderful," said Christoph Eschenbach. "They really try and snap up the seats that let them sit with the orchestra on stage to experience a rehearsal. And to us, their enthusiasm is infectious."

Despite its dependence on moneyed sponsors, the National Symphony Orchestra is in good standing. More than a few American orchestras, including the big five from Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Boston, have had to struggle with the consequences of the financial crisis. With donors having suffered significant losses, support has grown less generous. But the National Symphony Orchestra's status as both the orchestra of the city of Washington and the country as a whole lends it comparatively solid footing.

Washington, city of music

Even if the city is better known for politics than for classical music, Eschenbach hardly feels out of place there. In spite of everything, he says, Washington is a city of music: "I actually have to praise us myself - between us and the opera orchestra, we have two really outstanding orchestras in Kennedy Center."

Christoph Eschenbach's contract runs through 2014. Thereafter, it's also quite possible that he'll continue ensuring that classical music has a place alongside politics in the capitol.

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