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Fall '97 Cover Article


Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony

by: Jean Hurley

   Christoph Eschenbach moves his audience with music.  Wheher it is out of a concord of sweet sound, or through a spirited flourish of rhythmic energy, his orchestra, The Houston Syphony presents what many believe is a perfect vision, an exceptional sound.
    This years marks Eschenbach's tenth anniversary with the Houston Syphony.  His star has risen significantly during that time, adding impressive posts like Music Director of the Ravinia Festival (the summer home of the Chicago Symphony), Co-Artistic Director of the Pacific Music Festival in Japan, and this year's appointment as Pricipal Conductor of Hamburg, Germany's NDR Sinfonie Orchester, beginning with the 1998-99 concert season.
    When Eschenbach rode into Texas it wasn't on a white horse but it was certainly a propitious decision for everyone.  David Wax, Executive Director of the Houston Symphony observes,"back in 1988 when Christoph took the reins to lead the Houston Syphony, he was a world renown pianist just emerging as a gifted conductor.  In the decade he has held the baton in Houston he has moved our orchestra into the top league with major orchestra's in the world".  It's been a winning situation for everyone.
    The soft-spoken maestro wanted everyone to know he had found "an orchestra with potential" and an audience he expressed with wry pleasure, that was as interested ias he in the Second Viennese School-Schoenburg and his prize pupils, Berg and Webern, but also "an audience that was coming back after intermission".  When Eschenbach was asked to compare his Texas audiences reception to music and European reception, he said Houston was better, perhaps because Europeans take their art too much for granted.  "Here, in this country, where they don't have old culture people are moving longing for it. And longing is always good for art".
    Eschenbach must havc known some of the "longing" himself, especially as a young child of five, in Germany during WWII.  His Grandmother, who raised him, died the day after Christmas in 1945, while they were both refugees in a quarantine camp.  Only two people survived, one was the young Christoph, who was rescued and later adopted by a second cousinm Wallydore Eschenbach.  He gave him a home and a name, and his foster-mother gave him his first piano lesson.  Later Christoph studied with Eliza Hansen in Hamburg adn won the Steinway Young Pianist Competition at the age of eleven.  He also studied conducting with Wilhelm Bruckner-Rueggeberg, but did not decide to conduct until 1975 with the San Fransico Symphony.  His conducting suddenly became noticable; to many people Eschenbach represented an exciting living link to the rich tradition of romantic German conducting that ran from Richard Wagner through Furtwangler.  Eschenbach was a pianist-conductor in a tradition that extended back to Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt.
    Then he moved to Texas. That decision surprised many. And the questions invariably came, though mostly from out-of-town. Laurence Scherer wondered if "Mr. Eschenbach could produce similar wondrs with his own Houston Symphony?"  Edeward SSeckersen voiced what was on everyone's mind; if it was possible to rescue the Houston Symphony from its doldrums, to return them to a place where they once belonged (in the days of Stokowski, Barbirolli, Previn), America's first division of world orchestras. Eschenbach told Octavio Roca of The San Franciso Chronicle he enjoyed making music with the San Franciso Symphony (He continues to guest conduct for numerous world-class orchestras), but he planned to stay in Texas. "I have too much important work to do in Houston, I am very proud of that orchestra: It was like a sleeping beauty that needed waking."
    It didn't take long for the evidence to accumulate, that a mixed-marriage between a German born pianist, turned conductor, and symphony orchestra designated "regional" were perfectly matched. There was and continues today to be a powerful chemistry that exists between the Maestro and his musicians. Together their symphonic voice discovers, then envelops you, leaving an indelible impression that will often linger for days afterward.
    Eschenbach will admit that in the beginning he had to do some orchestra-building and sometimes it was "an up-hill climb", but the members willingness to exert more effort paid off. He believed then and continues to play for opera, because it keeps himself and musicians flexible. A meaningful collaboration still exitsts between The Houston Syphony and The Houston Grand Opera ten years later. This season he will conduct the Houston Symphony for The Houston Grand Opera's performance of Arabello, slated for April.
    The Houston Symphony had a somewhat spotty recording career until Eschenbach arrived. But that has also changed. There is new, excellent discography available now, like the complete Brahms Symphony No. 1 and No. 3, as well as an outstanding rendition of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World", the Schoenberg/Bach & Brahms and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5.
    Taking stock after nine years almost everyone agrees the revitalization of the Houston Symphony is incredibly exciting. Critcal acclaim is commonplace and recognition abounds, like January's release of Richard Strauss's final work, the Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra, awarded "Best of The Month" by Stereo Review. The Houson Symphony is described as "among this country's finest esembles" led by a "brilliant maestro".
    Expansive critical praise also follows the orchestra wherever it goes, on a tour to Japan, Europe, or the Northeastern United States. Eschenbach believes the tours have made a big difference to the cohesiveness of the ensemble. He explains, "I took the orchestra to Japan because it was so important to tour. It widened their horizons. They get closer together as a family. In Houston, they play together and then go home. On tour, they have to live together for several weeks. That strengthens the spirit of the orchestra. Then, they have to show their best sides every night in different halls and different cites. They see new things, talk to other people, see different art. Many went to temples and museums and Kabuki theatre, for example, all of which were reflected in their misic making." After two successful Japanese tours and triuphant European and Northeastern United States tours, it seems obvious Eschenbach knows what it takes to build an orchestra of the First Division.
    An evening with the Houston Symphony under the baton of Maestro Eschenbach is special any time, but in this, their tenth year together it should be a necessity to those who value not only substantial musical craftsmanship, but appreciate accomplishment derived out of vision and hard work. This season is an appropriate time to revel in that glory, to enjoy the moment of celebration.
    Miss Ima Hogg, a guiding force behind the Houston Symphony's reorgianization in the early part of the century had the enthusiasm and vision to inspire its development and growth until her death in 1975. Then the Orchestra hit a few high, but other tenuous low, spots. But all that is ancient history. The tenth year has arrived. The season will be filled with memorable performances under the baton of Cristoph Eschenbach. It includes, perhaps appropriately, the nine Beethoven symphonies. It also promises to be a big party, Texas style.

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