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Christoph Eschenbach to step down as NSO, KenCen Music Director

Written By | Feb 19, 2015

WASHINGTON, February 18, 2015 – In a surprise press release today, the National Symphony Orchestra and, by extension, the Kennedy Center announced that Christoph Eschenbach “will not extend his position as Music Director after the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season.”

After that season, Maestro Eschenbach will then serve an additional three years as the NSO’s Conductor Laureate, having by that time completed a total of eight seasons with the Kennedy Center and its resident orchestra, seven as Music Director and one as Music Director Designate.

The NSO release was worded diplomatically, so it’s not entirely certain how this decision evolved. In a prepared statement published in the release, Maestro Eschenbach declared

“I am proud of the legacy I leave and I am deeply grateful to the musicians who have joined with me to create an internationally prominent and unified ensemble.

“By 2017 I will have served as Music Director of American orchestras for almost 30 years, and it makes sense to step away from these obligations. Nevertheless I am happy to accept this new role as Conductor Laureate which will allow our collaboration to continue and flourish in the years to come.”

Reading between the lines, we’d agree that thirty years in the conducting/music director cockpit is, after all, quite a long time, particularly when you consider Mr. Eschenbach’s unfairly difficult tenure with the cranky members of the Philadelphia Orchestra prior to his tenure here.

Perhaps the fact that the Maestro is celebrating his 75th birthday Friday has turned the thoughts of this native of Poland in the direction of concluding his marvelously productive career with the relative freedom of guest-conducting, or even helming an orchestra back home in Europe.

On the other hand, perhaps the KenCen and the NSO board are looking to put more of the “National” in the National Symphony Orchestra, taking a direction more like the one Leonard Slatkin began to chart before personal issues and repetitious programming sank his career here; or similar to the still-evolving but America-centric vision of Washington National Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.

At this point, however, any rumor-driven buzz has to be classed as idle speculation, including mine. What is certain, however, at least for me, is that on most nights, particularly over the last couple of seasons, the NSO has sounded better than ever—and I’ve been attending NSO concerts at least sporadically since the late 1960s.

It should be beyond question that Mr. Eschenbach, both by his obvious rapport with orchestra members as well as his gradual addition of a number of fine new musicians, has significantly improved both the NSO’s sound as well as the quality of its ensemble playing. Fast tempi, at times, can still get a little helter-skelter, and instrumental ensembles can still go their own way for a few bars. But for the most part, each concert performance is more carefully shaped, more clearly planned and far better executed than under the previous regime.

The orchestra’s brass playing, in particular, has improved greatly and at times mightily. By way of comparison, I grew up attending Cleveland Orchestra concerts every other week when that top-five U.S. Orchestra was under the direction of legendary conductor George Szell. It’s still the gold standard in my slightly prejudiced and possibly parochial view—particularly with regard to the Cleveland’s muscular and brilliant brass section.

We shouldn’t forget that Maestro Szell was an early mentor to Maestro Eschenbach as he began to refocus his career as a fine concert pianist more in the direction of conducting over 40 years ago. That’s excellent musical lineage for anyone, and it wouldn’t be remotely surprising if at least on some level Mr. Eschenbach is striving for that same kind of clean, rich ensemble sound.

It’s not surprising that in recent seasons I’ve experienced more than once the sensation that the NSO’s brass section can now hold its own with that superior level of quality—something that’s only happened here since Mr. Eschenbach took the helm. For example, I recall with considerable relish the richness of the NSO brass in last June’s marvelous performance of Bruckner’s massive and difficult Eighth Symphony.

As for the rest of the ensemble, particularly the first chairs, everyone seems to have kicked things up a notch most nights with performances that range from deeply introspective to viscerally exciting. Plus, for the most part, the musicians actually seem to be enjoying themselves much of the time, another key to a successful performance.

So I, for one, am sorry to see Maestro Eschenbach take his leave from the Nation’s Capital. He’s been a positive force here, and still will be for the next few seasons. But when he finally departs, he will be missed. That’s my opinion anyway, and I’m not much concerned about the thoughts of those who might disagree.

Meanwhile, the world still turns, and the NSO will soon march on to the beat of a different metaphorical drummer. On that note, according to the NSO release,

“The orchestra’s board will form a search committee to find a new music director. New Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter also has a background in classical music organizations, most recently heading the Chicago Symphony.”

Which means, I would guess, that the KenCen will be looking for someone with capabilities that stretch beyond simply picking up a baton—and perhaps include staying in town long enough each year to make a difference. That’s apparently a tough thing to do in this new century, as most conductors of note tend to hold two and sometimes three “full-time” positions, the better, perhaps, to compete, aggregate salary-wise, with many corporate CEOs. But that’s a topic for another column.

As for Maestro Eschenbach’s actual successor? Who knows? The virtual ink has just dried on Wednesday’s PDF press release. So I guess we’ll just have to poke around the rumor mill like everyone else over the next few months to see who might be in the running to assume the Maestro’s post, likely for the 2017-2018 regular season and beyond.

Stay tuned.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17