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Post-Grammy interview

Gero Schliess / rfJanuary 29, 2014

German conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the NDR Symphony Orchestra won the Grammy this year in the category Best Classical Compendium. All in the service of the composer, Eschenbach told DW.

Christoph Eschenbach, Copyright: Margot Ingoldsby Schulman
Image: Margot Ingoldsby Schulman

DW: Mr. Eschenbach, you're one of the few Germans to have won a Grammy this year. How did you react to the news?

Eschenbach: I feel happy and honored of course. I'm glad to share the prize with [Japanese virtuoso] Midori and the NDR [North German Radio] Symphony Orchestra. I've done some highly inspiring work with both for decades, and that's how it will stay. We have further joint projects in the pipeline. That makes the prize all the more gratifying.

You're well known in the US, having led the orchestras in Houston, Philadelphia and now Washington, among others. Do you see the prize as the German-American community's recognition of your work here?

Yes, I do. But I think Hindemith is the true prize winner. That composer has been underestimated for decades, and this puts him in the spotlight. It's wonderful, especially since I've advocated his works in recent years, in recording and concert activity. It's no coincidence that we're performing his Requiem this week here in Washington. A thoroughly American work, he named it "American Requiem" because the theme is two presidents: Lincoln as portrayed in words by the poet Walt Whitman, and Roosevelt. So it all comes together this week.

Did it come as a surprise that an American jury would award the prize for a recording with Hindemith? Does the composer, who lived in the US for a number of years, have a larger following here than in Germany?

Absolutely right. His major achievements were actually in the United States. He wrote all his symphonies here - from Mathis the Painter and the E-flat Symphony for Boston to the Sinfonia Serena for Dallas. They regarded him as a great man here. He was a professor at Yale University and gave instruction at the summer festivals in Tanglewood. Leonard Bernstein, one of his most important students, spoke of him in the highest terms.

Paul Hindemith, Copyright: Getty Images
Dismissed by German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno as a "minstrel," Hindemith is getting some late recognitionImage: Getty Images

What does the Grammy award mean to you personally, having pursued a career on both sides of the Atlantic?

Most of all, it indicates that one is esteemed here and, getting back to Hindemith, it's a recognition of two German musicians: myself (I'm not an American citizen but have a green card) and Hindemith, who became a naturalized American and retained that status for the rest of his life.

Unlike other nominees from Germany - like star tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle - you won a prize. Are you especially proud of that?

I’m not so fond of the word "proud." You know, I just work. Or as Goethe once said, "Genius is diligence." The award is a product of years of work and years of coming to terms with this particular composer. It's regrettable that Jonas and Simon didn't win. But I'm not all that obsessed with that. You can’t "Grammify" everything on the market. Those two great artists and that great orchestra have also certainly won Grammys.

Christoph Eschenbach, Copyright: Margot Ingoldsby Schulman
Christoph Eschenbach has been a long-term advocate of HindemithImage: Margot Ingoldsby Schulman

What does this say about the status of German musicians in the US?

It's nice to see a German radio orchestra honored this way. German music is highly esteemed here: Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and the rest. And many musicians and conductors from Germany are professionally active here.

Born in 1940 in Wroclaw, Poland (then known as Breslau), pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach is artistic director of the National Symphony Orchestra and of its main performance venue, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, both in Washington, D.C. He spoke with DW's U.S. correspondent Gero Schliess.