This is a translation of an interview with Christoph Eschenbach, one of the world's most renowned conductors who will be stepping down as head of the Philadelphia Orchestra after this season. You can read the original here.
With the Orchestre de Paris and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach heads up two of the most well–respected musical entities in the world. And both have been recent recording partners with him on the independent Finnish label Ondine. The conductor spoke with Jörg Hillebrand about his orchestras, his records, and his preference for contemporary music.
A small portrait of Richard Wagner painted by Pierre Auguste Renoir in Palermo in 1882 hangs in the Musée D’Orsay. In it we see the composer mild in his old age, his face without any sharp edges, with slightly blurry contours. If this view of Wagner could be translated into music, the result might be exactly what one would get to hear at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Robert Wilson’s production of “The Ring Cycle” taken over from Zurich. The Orchestre de Paris, which so rarely does opera and is unaccustomed to such long stretches of playing, sat in its pit relaxed and in deep concentration. There was no visible strain. At times, true enough, the mammoth score was transformed into sound, in any case without that assiduous overexplictness in the leitmotivs that one has come to experience in most productions. The orchestra sound became ever louder, ever brighter; in the fortissimo, almost garish. In the pianissimo, on the other hand, it became mysteriously shaded. The sound had little depth, almost no weight, coming off all the more thick on the surface as a result. Chamber music refinement over long stretches. One word comes to mind: de–Germanization.
At the music stand is Christoph Eschenbach. His upper arms are still close to his body, his forearms still flapping nervously, his wrists still turning in that incomparable way. Outwardly, he hardly seems changed at all, even when you stand right in front of him. His long, bald head is ageless; his body’s stature as small as a boy’s. He resides on marvelous Marceau avenue, that leads south from the Arc de Triomphe to the Seine, on the top floor of a building constructed in 1914. Breathtaking art nouveau marks the furnishings of the maisonette–apartment, with wrought–iron lattices on the surrounding gallery and a gold–colored fireplace. This all contrasts the modern art on the walls.
Jörg Hillebrand: Mr. Eschenbach, the last time we met for an interview it was also about Wagner, more specifically about your debut with Parsifal at the 2000 Bayreuth festival. Why didn’t you return the year after that to the “Green Hill”?
Christoph Eschenbach: I couldn’t fulfill the second year of the contract because I had a back problem (attested to by a doctor), lower spine pain that made itself known rather severely when I conducted sitting down. And in Bayreuth you’ve got to sit when you conduct. Otherwise the brass section in the deepest part of the pit won’t be able to see you. My turning it down was in no way connected to the affair in 2000 which ended with Hans Sotin’s departure. I wasn’t mad at anybody. Wolfgang Wagner behaved himself superbly in this whole matter. He stood by me and advised me as to how we should proceed together. My hat goes off to him!
JH: Well then, as a sort of compensation, your first “Ring.” What, in your opinion, is the message of the tetralogy?
CE: It’s about the state of the world and the state of the gods. Both situations are morose. It’s about corruption, broken contracts, oaths, perjury, and swindles and deception. It’s also about “dope,” about drugs. In short, it’s about everything that’s ghastly these days. But nevertheless, at the end, there’s a glimmer of hope.
JH: Do you have any role models among the Wagner conductors of the past?
CE: I got to see quite a bit, even in Bayreuth. As a student, I spent many summers in the orchestra pit, even sitting in the middle of the score and observing the conductors from the front. I got to see Knappertsbusch, Böhm, Cluytens, the young Maazel and the young Sawallisch. But for the “Ring,” I emphatically wiped everything that was there out of my head. The only thing remaining was the score. And all of a sudden it wasn’t that hard to learn the piece or to find a personal approach to it. I didn’t even listen to any records, because I really wanted to tackle it from a new angle. If you can mention anything akin to a role model, it would be von Karajan’s “Ring,” which lacks Knappertbusch’s weightiness and blackness and offers a very large array of colors.
JH: Is it hard to play Wagner with French musicians?
CE: No, not at all. They were completely prepared beforehand. Many of them came with scores to the first auditions. And from the first reading to the last “Twilight of the Gods,” not one musician called in sick. I’m very proud of my orchestra. The musicians are completely impassioned by this work, and they’ve told and shown me that in many different ways. It’s really something that, even still before the last performance, a bass group is sitting and practicing in the pit one hour before the show, or that an English horn player is warming up an hour and a half before we start.
JH: You’ve been conducting the Paris orchestra for about six years now. Our reviewer Manuel Brug once classified it as notoriously second–rate.
CE: That’s not true.
JH: How would you categorize the orchestra qualitatively and with respect to its repertoire in the French music scene?
CE: In France, it’s quite obviously the best. And I’ve really diversified the program as far as the repertoire is concerned. Incidentally, my predecessors (for example, Barenboim) also did that, but I introduced even more Neue Musik. And right at the beginning, I invited Marc–André Dalbavie to be the composer–in–residence. We’ve performed world premieres by Dusapin, Manoury, Matalon and other French composers, as well as pieces by contemporaries from other nations. For example with Truls Mørk, we just put on the world premiere of a cello concert by Matthias Pintscher. It was a stupendous piece, very broad and long, almost like a cello symphony.
JH: Marc–André Dalbavie was the composer–in–residence for the lengthy period of four years. What do you like about his music in particular?
CE: The spaciousness. At first he composed more spectral pieces in which orchestra groups were divided up in the audience or on different tiers. And in the pieces that were no longer spectral, he managed nevertheless to bring in this feeling of space, either in some form of “Color” or “Ciaccona.” I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by the space around music in general. How space sounds. I don’t mean the concert hall, but the space in and of itself, the amplitude of musical declaration.
JH: Let’s jump over the big pond to America, but let’s stay with Neue Musik. As principal conductor in Houston, you rendered outstanding services to your American contemporaries, as well as allocated numerous composition contracts. And in your opening concert as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, you’ve already gotten the ball rolling with the world premiere of Gerald Levinson’s “Avatar.” What role does contemporary American music play in your programs?
CE: A large one, although I try to avoid what principal conductors of other American orchestras do, i.e., concentrate exclusively on American music. Because to me American music is not that terribly interesting. The regression in style and the desire to make yourself loved by the public are traits I can’t stand. Many composers that were once good now unfortunately tend to do this. But there are today still a few good ones, for example Peter Lieberson. Augusta Read Thomas is particularly good and I’ve already given her many contracts. One time in Hamburg I worked her into the program with Mozart’s Requiem. I started by breaking off in the middle of the ninth bar of “Lacrimosa” and went right into a similarly set up choral work by Augusta. It was an enormous success. In Philadelphia, on the other hand, it was far from an enormous success. Here you can see that the audience’s taste is heading in the wrong direction. But I’m slowly getting my audience in Philadelphia also used to composers like Rihm and Pintscher.
JH: You’ve been letting composers introduce their works to the Philadelphia public. Has that helped in their understanding or enjoyment of the works?
CE: Yes, very much so. Just the fact that I say three words then call the composer up on stage has a certain show effect. I remember Oliver Knussen asking beforehand: “What am I supposed to say? It’s all spelled out in the program.” I said: “You don’t need to say a word about the piece. You can talk about your grandmother.” Which is exactly what he ended up doing. All that needs to be proven is that the composer is alive, that he’s a human being and not some sort of monster. That breaks the ice. After that, the audience experiences the piece in a different way than they would have otherwise.
JH: Last year the Philadelphia Orchestra signed a three–year contract with Ondine, which provides for the orchestra to produce the master recordings itself and let the record label see to the rest. What’s the explanation, in your opinion, for this unconventional setup?
CE: First and foremost, the orchestra wants to keep the recordings in its possession. You don’t shell out an enormous sum in advance only to let the record label take over everything. The orchestra is highly involved in the licensing. And should it come to pass that the project’s not working out, someone else could be called in or they could do the whole thing themselves.
JH: On the occasion of your first recording together, our reviewer Attila Csampai wrote that the spirit of Eugene Ormandy still marks the orchestra’s character and that you felt seemingly at home in that tradition. Do you?
CE: I don’t feel at home in any tradition, but I select traditions in order to analyze them better.
JH: Does Ormandy’s ghost still haunt Philadelphia?
CE: No, that’s only in people’s imagination. If there are any ghosts, there’s Stokowski’s. Stokowski experimented a lot with the orchestra. He introduced “free bowing.” That’s when string players don’t carry out a simultaneous bow change and can use more than one bow stroke per tone, which yields a bigger sound. That’s what Ormandy took over. Of course, he definitely left his mark in his forty–four years of conducting the orchestra. But come on: these are new musicians. Maybe three of them played under Ormandy.
JH: Your first recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra for Ondine was also your first production on SACD. Do you see in this medium the future of classical recording albums?
CE: Yes, of course. I think that in a year’s time, there’ll hardly be any recordings that don’t use this system.
JH: What advantages does multi–channel technology give classical music recordings?
CE: It brings the concert hall into your home. Even into the homes of older people who no longer go to concerts.
JH: The Philadelphia Orchestra has a relatively new concert hall, the Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2001. After your opening concert there in 2003, Wolfgang Sandner in the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported room acoustic problems, particularly regarding the balance between soli and tutti, as well as between the strings and wind instruments. Have these problems since been dealt with?
CE: The sound in Verizon Hall was very dry and tight at first. It had to be opened up somehow. It was discovered that certain mistakes had been committed during construction and that the rules of acoustics had not been observed. We worked on it a lot together with architect Russell Johnson and his team. Now the hall sounds very good, actually.
JH: The next work appearing in Ondine is Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which is truly an often–played piece. The Philadelphia Orchestra alone has recorded it seven times in its history. What did you do in order to bring out something new?
CE: I didn’t bother too much about tradition.
JH: So again no listening to records?
CE: No, although I worked in the famous “Philadelphia sound,” which is very good for Tchaikovsky and can be summoned with almost no legerdemain.
JH: What else is going to be put out?
CE: We’d like to record some Mahler because the orchestra hasn’t done that in a while. Ormandy only performed three or four symphonies, Riccardo Muti just one, while Sawallisch didn’t do any. Now the time has come and the orchestra plays Mahler outstandingly well. Then we’ll probably continue with some more Tchaikovsky.
JH: Cyclically, thus including the three early symphonies?
CE: That’s my goal because I love them so much. I can’t say, however, anything more precise about it. Since the orchestra owns the recordings, it’s very closely linked to the process of the recordings’ coming into being. We have an “artistic committee” and a “media committee” that both have a say in the matter.
JH: The Orchestre de Paris is also still recording on Ondine. Four symphonies by Albert Roussel have been announced. Please introduce this composer to your fellow countrymen.
CE: Albert Roussel is a very underrated composer who speaks in his own language. The second symphony, for example, is very exciting. It sounds like music to a Hitchcock film.
JH: Where would Roussel be categorized in the French music tradition?
CE: He’d be somewhat all over the map. There are, naturally, certain late impressionist aspects, but also some very dramatic eccentricities that really constitute a symphonic cosmos.
JH: In July you’ll be playing with the orchestra of the Schleswig–Holstein festival on double duty as both conductor and pianist for a Mozart piano concert. And together with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is the first half of his “Seasons,” your first solo recording in thirty years. Are you finally returning to the piano?
CE: That’s not what this means. I might end up mulling over whether I should record the remaining “Seasons” or perhaps other Tchaikovsky pieces. I might.
JH: What as a pianist have you learned from conducting?
CE: What I used to want to do, i.e. play oboe, cello or trumpet on the piano, I manage to do when I’m on top of my game.
JH: The last time we met, you were Principal Conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra, but living in a hotel in Hamburg with a home in Houston still. Where is your home now?
CE: In Philadelphia.
JH: And where is your homeland?
CE: Inside of me. A homeland is no place for me.