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Eschenbach to Stay at NSO through 2016-2017

The National Symphony Orchestra has extended Christoph Eschenbach's contract, meaning that he will remain in the position of Music Director at least through the 2016-17 season. At that point, Eschenbach would be 77 years old, and given the generous salary he has received since taking the NSO podium in 2010, likely ready to retire into a life of mostly guest conducting. It is true that Eschenbach would not have been my first choice to lead the NSO -- the names of James Conlon and Osmo Vänskä were on my wish list -- and given how much money the orchestra has been able to spend on its music director, thanks to generous private donations, the organization should be able to aim higher as it prepares to hire Eschenbach's successor. Still, it is important to remember just how rudderless and at sea the NSO was in the wake of Leonard Slatkin's departure. In that context, the hiring of Eschenbach was a smart move that helped to stabilize the ensemble's position in what is, all agree, a perilous time for symphony orchestras.

To be sure, all has not been rosy under Eschenbach, and complaints from some of the musicians about an imperious leadership style have wafted to my ears. He has turned to the same pet soloists in Washington as has been his practice in previous positions -- some good, and some very, very bad (noted here even before he officially took his position). As a conductor he makes exasperating, even capricious choices from time to time, and his preference for spontaneity over predictability from rehearsal to performance or from performance to performance has caused trouble sometimes. Even so, the vitriol that appears, mostly anonymously, on Web sites about Eschenbach seems misplaced given the positives that have come with his tenure. The orchestra has recorded again, thanks to Eschenbach's relationship with Ondine, and it has gone on two international tours, to Europe and South America. Most importantly, the menu changes have been excellent: week after week, music is programmed that the NSO has never played before, or not for more than ten years, and often much more than that.

Eschenbach has conducted around ten or twelve programs in each of the four seasons he has led the NSO. I have not managed to hear all of them, but I went back over the reviews I have written of concerts actually conducted by Eschenbach (see the results after the jump). Giving three stars to concerts I thought were excellent, two stars to concerts that were basically good, and only one star to those I found unsatisfactory or truly bad, we find that the good and the excellent far outweigh the bad. At the same time, you will see that the greatest number of one-star concerts has been in the current season (in fact, there were none in the first season), which may explain some of the sour grapes. (The other thing that surprised me a bit was that most of the three-star concerts were concert performances of operas or other vocal works.) This leaves out the concerts led by guest conductors, which is a more complicated part of a music director's tenure, and there are other issues that come into play as far as the happiness and morale of the players in the orchestra, but from this listener's point of view, it has been far from a disaster.

Strauss 150 (March 20, 2014)
Der Rosenkavalier (March 8, 2014)
Act III, Parsifal (October 10, 2013)

Anne Sofie von Otter (March 7, 2013)

Dvorak, Stabat Mater (March 22, 2012)
Beethoven, Fidelio (March 16, 2012)
Bartok, Duke Bluebeard's Castle (March 8, 2012)

Zemlinsky (March 18, 2011)
Turangalîla-Symphonie (March 10, 2011)
Roussel, Padmâvatî (March 5, 2011)
Mahler 5 (October 15, 2010)
Bruckner 6 (October 8, 2010)

Steven Isserlis (February 6, 2014)
Hindemith, When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd (January 30, 2014)

Schnittke, Shostakovich (May 3, 2013)
Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho (February 28, 2013)
Tzimon Barto (January 17, 2013)
Lang Lang (November 10, 2012)
Missa Solemnis (November 3, 2012)
Wagner/Lieberson (October 5, 2012)
Anne-Sophie Mutter (September 30, 2012)

South American tour (June 8, 2012)
Sean Shepherd (May 31, 2012)
Hungarian Folk-Inspired Music (March 9, 2012)
Bruckner 9 (February 9, 2012)
Strauss/Beethoven (February 2, 2012)
Shostakovich (December 2, 2011)

Mahler 4 (April 9, 2011)
Berg/Beethoven (January 27, 2011)
Beethoven 9 (October 1, 2011)

Widmann, Beethoven (February 28, 2014)
Avner Dorman (January 23, 2014)
Brahms/Mozart (December 7, 2013)
Roger Reynolds (October 3, 2013)
Cameron Carpenter (September 30, 2013)

Bruckner/Henze (October 11, 2012)

Widmann (January 28, 2012)
Gala concert (September 29, 2011)
Kennedy Tribute (January 20, 2011)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excllent article. I have been appalled by some of the vitriol that has been writtne on other websites. You haveaccurately captured both the strengths and wekanesses of Eschenbach. In short, he has been a reasonably good force for stabilizing the symphony and has been inspiring in rpertoire that the NSO has neglected for much of the past 20 years. His performances with Goerne of the Schubert lieder have been a great bonus. I apprecciate you more balance critique which puts into perspective the ate of the orchestra when he took over. On the whole the orchestra sounds more refined and cultured than under its previous directors and that alone is worth celebrating.

Barry Lyons said...

I wish Eschenbach would record more as a pianist. At the very least, I know of three Beethoven sonatas that he recorded for EMI that have never been released on CD (yes, there is that other 2CD release), and I also know there's more in the vaults at Polygram. Brilliant Classics released a 6CD box of some recordings, but I want to see something more comprehensive.

Eschenbach is a fine conductor and a great pianist -- but few people seem to be aware of the latter.