Back in Washington, Christoph Eschenbach is hit by ‘sour, acidulous’ review

Back in Washington, Christoph Eschenbach is hit by ‘sour, acidulous’ review


norman lebrecht

December 07, 2013

The German conductor received a kicking in Vienna for a lacklustre Magic Flute. Now he’s being savaged for poor Mozart with his own orchestra. This is not the year of the Christoph.

Read Anne Midgette here.

A Slipped Disc reader writes: As a longtime NSO subscriber who witnessed all of our Music Directors from Dorati, Rostropovich, Slatkin, Ivan Fischer, Mr. Eschenbach’s concert this week was the worst from a Music Director this orchestra has ever had. It is alarming if the level of the orchestra will really go down under Mr. Eschenbach’s leadership.




  • another musician of the NSO says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, you are baiting….Why not post something else from someone who is a reader and a musician instead of being so one-sided? It was one of the best Brahms 1 I have ever heard and Anne Midgette’s review is inaccurate. She is entitled to her opinion, but she is misleading the readers to suggest the orchestra was out of tune or unprepared. The orchestra was in superb form playing for its Music Director. As was our concertmistress. Given all the comments made in previous posts about Eschenbach, I caution to be aware that if your regular naysayer(s) continue this anonymous tirade against Eschenbach, especially as it involves issues such as slander and identity theft, you are an accomplice as are those who make such comments. All it takes is a subpoena. I have no issue with freedom of speech or opinions that might even border on the excessively negative. But I urge you to simply leave Eschenbach alone as he does not deserve your targeting and he is still well appreciated by many and engaged around the world. Our board, administration and the majority of our musicians support our Music Director, and we want the NSO brand to not be exposed to the untruths that are regularly made on your blog. Your posting this review is targeting him to generate viewers. People can express their opinions about his music making. But allowing people to expose his personal life in public and posting comments by someone who falsely uses the name of his intimate friend is not only ethically wrong but is legally dangerous. My advice would be to redact all these posts about Eschenbach and focus your attention on other matters that deserve more attention. Thank you.

    • Halldor says:

      Still astonishing how many orchestral musicians think they’re better placed to pass judgement on the quality of a performance – their own performance – than people sitting in the audience. Anne Midgette doesn’t write frivolous reviews; and barely-veiled threats don’t undermine the authority and credibility of her judgements. Professional critics do not act out of malice, and in cases such as this musicians would be well advised to let their performances do the talking. I’m actually embarrased on behalf of the commenter above.

      • John says:

        Halidor, you might want to check on the record of Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy who took it as her personal mission to see that Rafael Kubelik was run out of Chicago on a rail in the 1950s (She succeeded). RK’s recordings with Chicago on Mercury told a far different story. One might also think about Harold C Schonberg of the NYT during the Bernstein years.

        I wasn’t present at this concert and perhaps you were, but I would give great weight to the judgment of any professional musician in matters like this, especially if they’re among the performers. Remember that they have little tolerance for phonies on the podium and can be just as merciless in their assessment if they don’t respect their leader.

      • JBBaldwin says:

        I’ve never been impressed with Midgette’s reviews and I think she is often frivolous (her paean to the execrable Bernstein Mass is indefensible). She never has much good to say about anything NSO-related, and I wonder why she came to Washington in the first place.

        She may be a notch above Tim Page, but that’s no difficult feat. All he ever did was complain about the brass section.

        Joe McLellan was the last decent music reviewer in the Post.

        Chas. Downey and Co. at do a much better job at reviewing important musical events than Midgette.

      • opus 131 says:

        “Still astonishing how many orchestral musicians think they’re better placed to pass judgement on the quality of a performance – their own performance – than people sitting in the audience. Anne Midgette doesn’t write frivolous reviews…”
        Oh, please. Yes, in fact, we are a hell of a lot better placed than critics to evaluate conductors, whether their reviews are “frivolous” (whatever that means) or not. I see the conductor’s face, not his hindquarters. I have to react to his gestures; I know whether it is clear to me when I should play or not. I can hear what kind of sound he is eliciting from my instrument, or indeed, if his gestures have the slightest effect on how I play. The reason I am playing in a major orchestra is because I prevailed in an incredibly competitive process, which was to a great extent dependent on my ability to listen to myself extremely critically, and to correct my flaws quite ruthlessly. The reason I was able to keep my job is because I can match the intonation of my colleagues, and play together with them…at least we can play together when given half a chance, when somebody as breathtakingly inept as Herr Eschenbach isn’t conducting.
        Whereas Anne Midgette demonstrated her expertise…how, exactly? She writes reasonably well, and was given the job by an editor who has no reason whatsoever to have the slightest knowledge of classical music. She listens to a lot of music and has a lot of opinions. So what? Oh, I guess she’s married to a composer.
        Halldor, you are to be congratulated. Even by the standards of comments on blogs, yours is [redacted: abuse].

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      “I caution to be aware that if your regular naysayer(s) continue this anonymous tirade against Eschenbach, especially as it involves issues such as slander and identity theft, you are an accomplice as are those who make such comments. All it takes is a subpoena.”

      Aren’t we taking things a little too dramatically now?

      “I have no issue with freedom of speech or opinions that might even border on the excessively negative.”


  • Without commenting on CE, whose work I have never witnessed live, I’d like to run with the ball proffered by the above-mentioned reader and mention Ivan Fischer, whose Budapest Festival Orchestra performed Mahler’s Ninth under his baton last night in Toulouse.

    It was breathtaking, spellbinding, bewitching. I didn’t notice the time pass. How Fischer and his virtuosic crew maintained the architecture and thought for 90 minutes was unbelievable. I mentioned to my fellow listener afterwards that, if martians landed and asked what it was we do best, I’d just point at this performance and leave them to work out why.

    French indiscipline, among performers as well as audiences, is well-documented. In the light of recent articles about Michael Tilson Thomas and Alan Gilbert interacting with the audience during performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in the USA I’d like to mention the fact that you could have heard a pin drop for 99.9% of last night’s performance; the only significant coughing coming between movements (particularly when Fischer left the podium between I and II) yet not a peep from a mobile, even during the applause. In fact, I’ve never heard one go off in Toulouse in the ten years I’ve been here.

    I’ve been going to concerts for forty years, now, but last night moved me in a way I’ve seldom been moved since hearing Celibidache and the LSO back in the Seventies (Schumann symphony, Prélude à l’après-midi…Rhapsodie Espagnole and the Tannhäuser overture; anyone else hear that?). It also reminded me why I’m such a great fan of elitism: the celebration of application, intellect, concentration and achievement. It’s fun to enjoy more accessible repertoire (I conducted musicals for ten years), but nothing beats great performances of top-of-the-range repertoire.

    Thanks, Ivan, and thanks to your exceptional orchestra.

  • Steve says:

    “This is not the year of the Christoph”

    OUTSTANDING concert a few months back at the Royal Festival Hall.

    Messiaen’s ‘Canyons’ can sometimes seem like a rather long haul, and garish in places but this performance (with the LPO and the much maligned Barto) was gripping.

    • Kasper says:

      The Messiaen performance that Eschenbach and Tzimon Barto did may sound impressive to the ears of the audience but with a piece like that most listeners weren’t able to judge whether the score was executed according to the composer’s intention or not. In other words it is easier to look impressive performing complicated 20th century composition because you can’t expect the majority of the audience to have deep knowledge and to have studied the piece being performed before going to the concert hall.

      With the standard Classical and Romantic music people can’t be fooled easily. Many audience members are professional or very good amateur musicians or people with long affection listening to classical music all their lives. When Eschenbach performed Bruckner Symphony No. 8 at the Proms with the Vienna Philharmonic a few years back (a concert which I attended myself), his interpretation was so horrible and so perverse as clearly reported in the Guardian:

      The pattern about Eschenbach negative reputation as a conductor is very clear, not only Salzburg, Vienna, Philadelphia, Paris, Washington DC but London too witnessed his musical perversity. People around the world should finally realize there is NO such thing as “back stabbing” agenda among the music journalists toward him. Anne Midgette wrote the truth of what she heard sitting as an audience, so did Peter Dobrin, Tom Service and many many other qualified music journalists, many of them have extensive musical background themselves!

      • Steve says:

        “The Messiaen performance that Eschenbach and Tzimon Barto did may sound impressive to the ears of the audience but with a piece like that most listeners weren’t able to judge whether the score was executed according to the composer’s intention or not.”

        i’m fairly steeped in this repertoire and have a reasonable sense if things are going well or not. Of course, it’s a subjective thing, but for me, Boulez doesn’t transmit much affection in the same repertoire whereas CE did on this occasion.

        YLoriod heaped praise upon CE’s recording of the Quartet for the End of Time and i’d imagine she knew the composer’s intentions fairly well.

  • Charm City Musician says:

    The Eschenbach tragedy continues…

    What is new? Yes, he is a bad conductor, a really really bad conductor nowadays. It is unfortunate, but it is a fact confirmed from Salzburg and Vienna, to Paris, Philadelphia and Washington and many places in between. We will be hearing and reading about this reality as long as Eschenbach continues to conduct and continues to disappoint many critics and much of the public.

    In his defense it must be said that he was once a somewhat interesting musician, especially as a pianist, but sadly as a conductor he was never in the top league and sadly today, he simply is far below the level that he is being marketed and promoted as and that is where the problem is. The NSO is in a difficult situation with him, as he is not likely to improve with age and it appears that he is quickly declining and turning in one sloppy and bad performance after another. I won’t even talk about the abysmal young talents that he champions around the world, as that would only add insult to injury. The NSO should think carefully about going too far down the road with Eschenbach, as they may just find themselves in an untenable situation, being the source of ridicule and scorn because they have a has-been music director.

    I am puzzled by the comment above, by a supposed NSO musician, who repeatedly says that “people can express their opinions about his music making” and then goes on to say that we are not allowed to say what we think and that the board and all musicians of the NSO support Mr. Eschenbach. How can one musician amongst a hundred or so, be so assured of what all of his/her colleagues think? Living in Baltimore and being a music teacher with very very close contacts to several NSO musicians, I can tell you, without any reservations, that not all of your colleagues are enamored by Eschenbach and I have heard on at least four occasions that many are getting bored and fed up with him, so there are two sides to the coin. This was exactly what happened in Philadelphia with Eschenbach. He polarized the ensemble and in the end he had to go. Still, there he was in somewhat better shape as a conductor. Now, however, he is really past his sell-by date.

    He himself should take notice of his serious deficiencies nowadays and exit with dignity and allow himself to be remembered as the once better musician that he was. He certainly can not continue much longer like this.

    By the way, I was at Thursday night’s concert (December 5th) and I concur with Anne Midgette’s harsh critic. It was a terrible and extremely boring concert, badly played and above all very badly conducted by Eschenbach. Sure, some will jump to Eschenbach’s defence and say that the concert was not at all what the washington Post critic claimed it to be, but sadly, I have musical ears and train musicians on a high level and this concert was not just, as she said, “a bad night”, no, it was a conductor who was so detached musically and technically unable to control and balance the ensemble. With conducting like I witnessed on Thursday evening, Christoph Eschenbach wouldn’t even get to the semi-finals of the first year conducting class at Peabody or any other decent music school. No technique and sadly no interest from him or for him.

  • Victoria Adams says:

    I too attended the concert on Thursday evening and must sadly agree that it was awful. I had the impression that Mr. Eschenbach was physically there, but neither his mind nor spirit were in the Kennedy Center making music with the NSO. He had a glazed look in his eyes (I sat in the fifth row center) and to me, he looked like he didn’t want to be there. The result was what I intuitively felt. I must admit that I don’t particularly enjoy his concerts and his way of making music and greatly miss Ivan Fischer, who was a passionate and fiery conductor. This Eschenbach concert was much worse than his others, or any other NSO concert that I ever attended. I felt sorry for the NSO musicians who must have been frightened by seeing their director waving his arms in every which way and not communicating anything to them, except lacklustre chaos. The appointment of Christoph Eschenbach as director of the NSO has been a very big disappointment, as he was supposed to be one of the big ones, but actually isn’t.

  • Member of NSO says:

    There is a growing uneasiness and animosity towards Maestro Eschenbach among certain group of musicians in our orchestra right now. It has been very frustrating for some of us as we feel Maestro Eschenbach has an agenda imposing his “perverse” musical interpretation against the composer’s intentions (because he wants to be seen as “original”), much more so now then when he began with us in 2010. Some of us went home feeling angry after playing the Brahms 1st symphony with him this week because he put us in the situation of making music against Brahms musical intention, on top of that he made us feel we were working as his slaves to satisfy what went through in his head. It can’t go on much longer like this because his musical approach destroys our sense of ensemble and even as far as our identity as an orchestra. I know my colleagues in the Philadelphia Orchestra had to endure the same situation like us during 5 years.

    • 88 Keys says:

      Well said. I was an NSO subscriber, but such Eschenbach arrived in 2010, I decided in 2011 to cancel my subscription and purchase only individual tickets for specific concerts, usually when he is not conducting. I am a retired piano teacher and I can’t profess to being or having been a musical genius, but I know good music making when I hear it. What Eschenbach does is often, and unfortunately, truly “perverse” as you say. He seems to want to impose his own strange will at all costs and at all times, constantly micromanaging the music, instead of just letting it breathe and walk on its own. He does this repeatedly, even if it is in direct conflict with what is written in the score or the way that the orchestra is carrying the musical line. He, as Anne Midgette says so well, “slams on the brakes” and that leads to what is referred to here as “perversity”. Listening to many Eschenbach concerts with the NSO is, for me, like “coitus interruptus”! As has been stated on this blog ad nauseam in the past as well, Eschenbach wrongly and quite arrogantly, puts himself before and ahead of the music, ahead of the composer, instead of being humble and at the service of the music. Perhaps if he were a true great, a real visionary Maestro, he could pull it off, but just being an eccentric egomaniac only leads to his repeated failures worldwide. The NSO shouldn’t be put in this situation and neither should its audience.

  • ruben greenberg says:

    Georg Solti, at around the age of eighty, went back to giving chamber music recitals at the piano. When he did so, everything sounded fresh, sensitive and musical again and all of the brutality and “Prussiannness” of his conducting disappeared. It is time Mr. Eschenbach went back to his piano. In French, we say: “se refaire une santé”.

  • Anne Midgette’s review speaks for itself and is certainly not a part of any agenda or campaign. She was welcoming and supportive when Eschenbach was appointed and when he began as music director in Washington. She has written many favorable reviews and features on him and the orchestra, always explained her reasoning, and never expressed glee in giving a critical notice. We saw this same sort of thing that she describes with Eschenbach and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia for far too many summers. Somehow he keeps landing these high-level leadership positions. A mystery.

    • Vashta Nerada says:

      Andrew, the subject of Ravinia Festival – Eschenbach relationship you know too well yourself. The question should be raised how can a very close pal of Eschenbach who himself is a [redacted: libel] and has been arrested for DUI can be protected by the Boards to keep his job as the CEO of Ravinia Festival? Over the years we continuously see the same Eschenbach’s club going to Ravinia (Barto, Erik Schumann, Maslennikov and many others), the CSO musicians are fed up with these so called Eschenbach’s “geniuses”, the public don’t deserve to pay tickets to hear low level talents being pushed in front of the great CSO………..too much back rubbing have been going on between Eschenbach and Welz Kauffman

  • Brian from Washington says:

    Ann Midgette giving Maestro Eschenbach a bad review should be no more newsworthy than the fact that it snows in Alaska. Midgette documented her disdain for Eschenbach four years ago when she compared his first concert as music director to “a wedding with a bride who wants to look beautiful by surrounding herself with ugly bridesmaids… the Verdi Requiem featured such an awful quartet of vocal soloists that he could only look better by comparison.”

    Fortunately the bulk of Washington’s concert-goes don’t pay much attention to Midgette’s reviews. Last night the concert hall was nearly full, and the audience exploded at the end of the Brahms symphony which Midgette so disliked a couple of days before. I’ve been attending NSO concerts since the days of Howard Mitchell. In my musical layman’s opinion, last night’s may have been finest Brahm’s First I’ve ever heard in a live concert.

    For what its worth, I find it hard to believe that the purported musicians of the NSO who have posted comments above (both pro and anti Eschenbach) are really members of the orchestra.

    I hope my contributions to the NSO are not contributing to the pay of orchestra members who are so unprofessional as to either anonymously malign their organization or threaten those who do with subpoenas.

    • another musician of the NSO says:

      I agree with you Brian. It was a great Brahms 1. The threat of subpoena is based solely on the identity theft and public slander, rather than subjective and serious criticism of a musician and his interpretations, which unfortunately is not the case on this blog. Has anyone actually given a musicological argument based on phrasing, themes, balance, tempo? Furtwângler, Celibidache and Bernstein also “slammed on the brakes” and took excessively slow tempi. Maybe their taste was subjectively better than Eschenbach’s, but the originality of his ideas should not be punished. They work or they don’t. Calling it perverse is has no critical merit. Writers said the same or equivalent thereof about Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin Rachmaninov, Furtwängler, Bernstein, Celibidache and so on. And people adored these same composers and conductors as well. Subjective opinion is valid as long as it does not enter into public slander and identity theft. In this case, people are hurt by more than simply someone’s opinion. And there are laws against this. Blogs may be expressions of freedom of speech but there are limits to what can be shared and not. Both the owner of this blog and those who believe they are invisible and invincible when posting such violations of the law should know better. Mind you, these online blogonistas are not the arbiters of whether a board of directors and Kennedy Center President would choose to continue engaging an Eschenbach, Belohlavek or Fischer. I don’t think they care what you or I think. Yet these people making these comments think they know better, but they really don’t. . And yes, should the NSO choose to engage in legal proceedings in order to protect its brand, IP protocol and identities can be forcibly revealed by court order. What do you think the NSA does? But why go to that length? I am only asking Mr. Lebrecht and his readers to use better judgement. That’s all. Keep your opinions about the music made not about the man or his friends. And yes, your contribution to our orchestra should be for the presentation and production of music serving our community. Not for this online chatter. I submit we are all wasting our time on this blog. I think I have said enough. Signing off…..

      • The Queen's Counsel Speaks says:

        As a lawyer in the UK, the above comment makes me laugh! Talking about “legal proceedings” and identities “forcibly revealed by court order” and then the best of all, “What do you think the NSA does?” I should remind both the person who wrote this nonsensical comment and other delusional Americans that this is an international blog and to the best of my knowledge, it is based in the UK. The USA does not have legal jurisdiction over other sovereign nations. You have enough problems of rampant corruption, out of control violence, some of the worst fraud committed in the world and a civilian population armed to the teeth and a murder rate commensurate with that abhorrent fact. You may live in a delusional fantasy world, as many there do, that you are the world’s policemen and your laws are valid globally and your authorities reign omnipotently. Sorry to inform you, but you are delusional! Fortunately for the rest of the world, I may add. Long live freedom of speech, no matter how it may be seen by those opposed to its downsides.

        • Thank you, M’Learned Friend. What emerges from this discussion is a psychopathology of a depressed orchestra.

          • yet another NSO member, though how would you know for sure? says:

            Hey now. We don’t even know for sure these comments come from real members of the NSO, PO, or the Queen’s Counsel. What you can be sure of is that in any group of a hundred people you’ll have a variety of opinions, levels of job satisfaction, psychopathology, depression. Most of us choose to stay out of “discussions” like this.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            I think it’s telling though that none of all the “NSO members” in this discussion here – and let’s for a moment assume that at least some of them are actual NSO members – is willing to put his/her name above his/her comments.

  • Another member of NSO says:

    A big portion of orchestra members including myself are very upset upon learning the painful truth that Jiri Belohlavek was supposed to sign the contract as our Music Director when some last minute behind the scene maneuvering were done to push our Board members supporting Christoph Eschenbach. We know Maestro Belohlavek was extremely bitter and angry towards our orchestra when he discovered what had happened. We are slowly paying the price for the mistake of a forced marriage with a conductor who should never been imposed to be our Boss. Time will tell how this whole thing blows up for the worse! Bad press in Salzburg, Vienna and Washington DC one after another are not coincidental, they are proof that Maestro Eschenbach hasn’t done his job right!!

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Bělohlávek was voted out by the musicians of the Czech Philharmonic after only a year or so as principal conductor. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a terrible conductor. But that is pretty rare.

      • It was the end of Communism and the musicians were seduced by an offer from the West. I wrote about it at the time. Belohlavek was in no way at fault.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          I remember they voted in Gerd Albrecht – a very solid conductor but not a particularly seductive one. Or maybe they expected to profit from his better contacts in the west. But he left in a huff a few years later because of that concert at the Vatican that was supposed to be conducted by some obscure American conductor instead of him.

          Looks like Bělohlávek is back as principal conductor now. I wasn’t aware of that.

  • POMusician says:

    It will only get worse with Eschenbach and from my experience with him in Philadelphia, I can assure you of that. I see a similar pattern happening at the NSO, i.e. another “forced marriage” having had Eschenbach imposed just prior to signing a better, but albeit less famous conductor, Eschenbach’s polarizing of the orchestra’s musicians (same thing happened in Philadelphia) with his eccentric and idiosyncratic interpretations, unclear conducting technique and because of all that, the ensemble is weakened and the ensemble is musically polarized, leading to unbalanced and poor concerts. The orchestra’s anger, animosity and dissatisfaction towards the same group of musically mediocre Eschenbach “discoveries” as soloists and seeing very little other than them, over and over and over. We too had Tzimon Barto on many occasions and we had to put up with him reciting his own amateurish poetry readings in front of our public and orchestra, onstage, after he played a concerto, all at Maestro Eschenbach’s insistence. We had to put up with him shouting loudly very foul four letter obscenities in front of the entire orchestra and holding up the entire rehearsal because he misplaced his music and Maestro Eschenbach just smiling at the situation, like he was an adorable child entitled to curse and swear obscenities in front of us and delay the rehearsal by 30 minutes and then have to listen to his lame poetry readings after an appalling concert performance and then hear that Maestro insisted that he be invited back again and again. Everything that I have been reading here is ‘deja vu’. We in Philadelphia have been through it all and are now rid of it and the orchestra has never been happier nor sounded better. It was a very black period in our history, but we took the step to get Eschenbach ousted. Yes, it was difficult, but it had to be done. Eschenbach apparently doesn’t learn from past mistakes, as this all seems like a similar repeat of the ‘Philadelphia Story’ with him. Good luck!

  • anon says:

    Last time I saw such grumbling about a critic’s review it was the hoards of Valentina Lisitsa fans attacking Andrew Clements’s review of her Rach album. Get over yourselves; critics are going to critique. If you enjoyed the performance, good for you.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    I also heard all of NSO music directors starting with Rostropovich and, while certainly this was not Eschenbach’s best concert, was not by far the worst that I heard from a music director; hint, the worst did not come from Eschenbach. I attended Thursday night’s concert and while I generally agree with Ms. Midgette’s asessment, it appears that there were no sour notes on Saturday’s night concert; see this review:

    As for detractors: even Ms. Midgette’s review said that the NSO is getting better. Whether one likes Eschenbach’s interpretations is of course a matter of taste. What bothered me about this Brahms 1st was not the slow tempi, nor the conductor’s much discussed tendency to “push and pull,” “slam the brakes’, etc. What bothered me is that, *this time*, they did not make for a coherent interpretation. But, as I said before, I heard some magnificent concerts from Eschenbach: Bruckner 6, Tchaikovsky 5th, Fidelio. Also, the first European tour got generally great reviews.

    On the debit side, some soloists such as Dan Zhu were, to say the least, questionnable. But, by the same token, we get to regularly hear Matthias Goerne, so why see only the bad part of things? Overall I believe the NSO is doing great under Eschenbach, thank you very much.

  • doremi says:

    On the other hand MAGIC FLUTE opera is boring from begin to end…and so are all operas…someone screaming while music is being played in the background…unbearable.