Fall '97 Cover Article
Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony
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
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.
If you would like to get more information about the Houston Symphony,
how about trying the source.
Houston Symphony Homepage
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