Slipped Disc editorial: Why Christoph Eschenbach attracts controversy

Slipped Disc editorial: Why Christoph Eschenbach attracts controversy


norman lebrecht

March 25, 2014

From his earliest steps in music, the German pianist and conductor was drawn to the centre of power. A protege of Herbert von Karajan, he was befriended by the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and recorded with him (and Justus Frantz) the Mozart triple piano concerto on EMI.

His first post as music director was in ultra-rich Zurich (1982-86). His second was in oil-well Houston (1988-1999), where he built a loyal following among musicians and audiences.

A capable, at times inspirational, conductor, his hallmarks were designer-cut coats, a lifestyle to match, and an entourage of soloist friends who seldom matched his musical calibre. In Houston, these attributes passed unnoticed.


It was only when Eschenbach was announced in 2003 as music director in Philadelphia that they drew critical attention. Although musicians were represented on the search committee, he had not conducted the orchestra for four years and his previous engagements had been unsatisfactory. The atmosphere did not improve over time; when Eschenbach’s contract was renewed, the musicians were reported to be 80 percent against him. There was a similar response at the Orchestre de Paris, which declined during his tenure (2000-2010).

In 2008, he transferred to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington after a brilliantly orchestrated whisper campaign by his agent to suggest that he was in line for the New York Philharmonic. He fee was far above expectations and the results have been inconsistent,  a mixture of the memorable and the capricious. Ever personable, Eschenbach made himself agreeable to DC society and to a section of the musicians.



But his mind was often elsewhere and he ate too many cherries off the cake. Last summer he stepping in for the first of three Mozart operas in Salzburg in the middle of an orchestra tour. He earned a hostile response and was accused of wrecking the festival’s centrepiece. His Magic Flute in Vienna was dismissed as flabby.

His renewal in Washington this week was another inside job where friendship and connections took precedence over the needs of the orchestra and the city. His programming next season, from which American music is absent, is insensitive. No other candidate was considered by a lame-duck management. There is only one winner in Washington these days and it is not the music.



  • Sergio says:

    Why is he controversial? Maybe because he isn’t that great a conductor. I’ve never once heard an inspiring performance conducted by him. They’ve been faceless with no personality

    • Stereo says:

      So true,how did he get away with it for so long. Typical boring German!

      • JohnAlexandreC says:

        Typical boring German? You must be American, always in their high horse, and thinking they are always the best in everything. Remember that at least 50% of the repertoire performed by all orchestras is either by boring German or boring Austrian composers (all that boring Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, Strauss, Bruckner, Wagner, Schumann, Schubert…!), that boring orchestras in Germany and Austria include those always listed as being in the top 3 (Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics) or several in the top 20 (Staatskapelle Dresden, Gewandhaus, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bavarian State Orchestra, etc.), and most boring conductors were born in Germany (Karajan, Kleiber, Masur, Furtwängler, Dohnányi, Janowski, Franz-Paul Decker, Dmitri Jurowski, Sanderling,…).

        • David Shengold says:

          “at least 50% of the repertoire performed by all orchestras is either by boring German or boring Austrian composers (all that boring Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, Strauss, Bruckner, Wagner, Schumann, Schubert…!),”

          Alas, in answering a silly comment you make another one. Perhaps you speak accurately of “all orchestras” in Central Europe, but– more than 50% of the repertory worldwide??? Is that documented fact?

          Somehow over the decades I’ve managed to hear a lot of orchestras playing Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Stravinsky, Bartok, Kodaly, Lutoslawski, Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek, Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, Respighi, Barber, Copland, Adams, Carter, Bernstein, Reich, Glass, Elgar, Britten, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Ades, Sibelius, Nielsen, Grieg, Takemitsu, Ravel, Chausson, Berlioz, Bizet, Saint-Saens, Rameau, Lully, Debussy, Dukas, Faure, Milhaud, Boulez, de Falla, Albeniz, Villa-Lobos, Liszt, Chopin, Szymanowski. Penderecki, Kurtag, Tan Dun, Honegger, Dutilleux, Cesar Franck, Bloch, Boccherini, d’Indy, Chavez

  • Hasbeen says:

    Lots of pejorative writing and opinion but no substance!

    ‘ultra-rich, oil well’ is this relevant

    ‘seldom matched his calibre’,in who’s opinion and what calibre is that ?

    Musicians on search committee and early unsuccessful engagements ? Seems unlikely they would have hired him.

    Whisper campagne and connections/friends ! Really ? Where is the evidence ?

    He only conducted Cosi in Salzburg. The others are in the future. The Vienna Phil were consulted and they chose Eschenbach over other available conductors on high international standing.

    Magic Flute, flabby ? In who’s opinion?

  • G Ell says:

    Flabby is right and just about sums it up. Blowsy is another but this one is assisted by his (or his masseuse’s) favorite soprano.

  • Halldor says:

    What troubles me more than any of this, are the reports – if true – of his half-hearted work and difficult behaviour with the Australian Youth Orchestra last year.

    Mega-rich international festivals pay silly money for a flashy name and get a mediocre performance: well, hopefully there’s a lesson learned there. But for an eminent, well-paid musician to give second-best with a group of aspiring young musicians, is really disgraceful.

  • Joel Cohen says:

    ” he was befriended by the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and recorded with him (and Justus Frantz) the Mozart triple piano concerto on EMI.” Am I getting this right? Helmut Schmidt pianist?

  • Marvin M says:

    I would like to repeat here, what I posted to the other Eschenbach blog earlier today, as I think that it answers the title of this blog, “Why Christoph Eschenbach Attracts Controversy”:

    Please readers, let the facts speak for themselves! It is all too easy to turn real criticism into accusations of unjustified “bashing” and “negativity”, but the facts speak for themselves.

    1. Eschenbach is being paid $1.93 million dollars to lead a second tier orchestra and carry the title of Kennedy Center Music director for about twelve weeks in the year. That fact alone should make any sane and rational person’s ethical standards be challenged, especially when knowing that the Kennedy Center is a public/federal institution, supported and maintained by a combination of federal taxpayer money and private donor funding. This, at a time where arts organisations are in great difficulty, with many having already closed or about to, i.e. New York City Opera, San Diego, etc., etc. Yes, there is something very wrong with that, if you give a hoot about culture in your country and want it to be constructed and built upon sound and decent foundations.

    2. The above fact becomes all the more disturbing and seemingly unjustified when any person takes the trouble to look at the results that Eschenbach has achieved at the NSO/Kennedy Center and what his past track record tells us. Sorry, but the facts tell me that this man has a serious qualitative problem and has been in constant conflicts and has been thrown out of no less than three major orchestras in the recent past. Any sceptical reader here should just Google Eschenbach/Philadelphia Orchestra to read about the animosity and disdain under which he had to leave that orchestra. Then do the same with Eschenbach/Orchestre de Paris and you will discover the same scandalous and acrimonious departure from that orchestra as well. Then, if you want to go further back, check out his time in Zurich at the Tonhalle and you will realise that he was thrown out of there as well and remained without any orchestra association for more than two years after his departure from there. So, these are facts and these facts portray a real problem. They are not “bashing”, they are not a witch hunt. No, they are facts!

    3. The very fact that so many on this blog repeatedly react with animosity towards this man, stems from a perceived injustice, in that his notoriety is not in synch with the reality and all of the management and PR machines have created a massive smoke screen to camouflage this reality, but true music lovers and those capable of forming educated musical opinions clearly see that something is amiss here. Neither the remuneration, using partly taxpayer funds, nor the result achieved by Eschenbach is worth the investment. I challenge anybody reading this to imagine for one minute that if a corporate CEO had a track record as bad as Eschenbach’s, whether that CEO would keep landing new even higher paying positions over and over again. It would be impossible, because the shareholders wouldn’t hire a CEO that carried so much tainted baggage, as does Eschenbach. It is this injustice, this pretending that something is great and worthy of being paid nearly five times more than the President of the United States of America, that irks me and many others, who would welcome a more sane and just world for the arts. Eschenbach violates that premise, with poor quality and being grossly overpaid with partly public funds.

    4. Yes, there may be a good concert here or there, but there is absolutely no consistency with this man and, as has been highlighted on this blog countless times already, many are outraged at Eschenbach’s hiring of soloists, not always based on musical criteria. The disasters related to this are also documented in the press, i.e. Dan Zhu, Tzimon Barto, Claudio Bohorquez, and many, many, many others. These non-musical choices have eroded the little credibility that Eschenbach has with serious music followers.

    To summarise, the intent here is not to bash anybody, nor to stir up any dirt. The intent here is to try to bring back some justice to a dysfunctional classical music “business” and allow it to thrive and survive in the future. Eschenbach is only the tip of the iceberg, but a flagrant case of remuneration not based on quality, nor any healthy criteria and that should stop, if classical music is to find itself on healthier ground. That’s all!

  • Deborah says:

    His Schubert 8 with the Vienna Philharmonic a couple of weeks ago at Carnegie Hall was so weighted with artificial gravitas that it felt like all life was drained from it. There was no suspense, no warmth. It was ghastly. The Mahler 4 following it was gorgeous, however other than the adagio which he led admirably, it lacked any overall interpretation by Eschenbach. There’s just something about his conducting style that seems false – like he’s playing a conductor in a film. The music rarely connects – and it comes off as an arrogant facade.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      His Schubert 8 with the Vienna Philharmonic a couple of weeks ago at Carnegie Hall was so weighted with artificial gravitas that it felt like all life was drained from it. There was no suspense, no warmth. It was ghastly.

      Maybe that was his intention? This symphony is not necessarily the sunny piece many conductors make it to be. It is one of the first “romantic” pieces, there is a lot of dark undercurrents in the music that some conductors emphasize more, some less.

    • Doug says:

      There’s just something about his conducting style that seems false – like he’s playing a conductor in a film.

      You hit the nail on the head. There are “musicians” who love nothing more than the life of a “musician” and there are musicians who are musicians because they love music and are at service to the art.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Eschenbach is probably in the second category then, no matter if you like his conducting style or not. He is, after all, a very good pianist – it is fairly easy to impersonate a conductor. It is impossible to impersonate a good pianist.

  • Brian says:

    Sounds like the poster boy for Haggin’s Law (formulated by the late critic, B.H. Haggin): You can’t keep a bad man down.

  • Ninon says:

    Here we go again! Bashing Eschenbach.

    This is becoming repetitive and boring Mr Lebrecht.

    Obviously despite all the past and recent “Eschenbach topics” you multiply and launch on this blog, it seems you don’t have enough bashing comments to satisfy your appetite… or to run your blog business…

    You are doing great efforts to create what you call a “controversy”, but i am sorry to say that this artificial controversy is fed mostly by the few bitter anonymous who ruminate their obsessive hate (and personal rancor!) against Eschenbach.

    As I can read above, sometimes the same person uses different names and writes more than fifty lines in one comment, thirty in another one, and cut/copy and distribute the same comment in different posts, etc… full time lobbyist job!

    What is your interest to promote this campaign of hate, and personal attacks? More bloggers ? Good figures of clicks on your blog?

    Or your personal ambition to test the power of a new media on the “Classical Music Business”?

    I hope that you are conscious that encouraging personal attacks and untrue biased gossips may increases the number of your bloggers but on the other way undermine your tribune’s good reputation.

    • People who post on Slipped Disc do so under just one name. You, we note, have chosen to adopt the anonymity for which you attack others.

      • Ninon says:

        I do not attack anonymity, anonymity is inherent to the operation of a blog.

        And nobody here (but you ?) amongst the bloggers can know the actual identity of “Marvin, Katja, Halidor, Sergio, Hasbeen, Insider, G Ell, Milky Way…” and all the others. This is the door open to the better and the worst…

        I just underline your recurrent and meticulous zeal to encourage the attacks on Eschenbach, who becomes in your blog, for some weird people, the equivalent of the “pinata star” in the mexican ritual.

  • patron of NSO says:

    Just to offer a random concert-goer’s opinion: I find the NSO unfortunately not to be of a quality that encourages me to come down for every concert of standard rep. It’s usually an interesting soloist who brings me to the Kennedy Center. Do I need to hear Eschenbach conduct another Beethoven 5? It’s just not outstanding, and that’s what it needs to be to make the trip worth it for me since I live out of town. Just my two cents.

  • David Boxwell says:

    For almost 4mill for 24 weeks’ work, we should be getting Carlos Kleiber (even he would have jumped at that much jack). Instead, we’re getting . . .

    • James says:

      Most of the dread 4 mill will go to the IRS, the American tax authority, and then…..? Prehaps on to the Pentagon for ITS cultural efforts on behalf of us all. That should take a load off certain minds. Kleiber? Another conductor who was good at demanding and receiving high fees. Vanity of vanities… Anyway, the mean-spirited bullying Putinesque style has come home to roost on this web site. Alot of that going around these days, eh? My my….

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I am sorry I have to tell you this, David, but Kleiber is dead. He has been for almost 10 years now. And no, I don’t think he would have jumped at that much money. He turned down far more lucrative offers than that if he didn’t feel like it.

      • David Boxwell says:

        Well, he always drove a hard bargain: so an extra $500K bonus for re-animation, and a Mercedes E63 AMG S 4matic thrown in to the deal. And a rent–free penthouse next door at the Watergate. And no American music, if he didn’t want it.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Watergate? Did Kleiber ever conduct in Washington? I don’t think he conducted a single note of American music, although, technically at least, he was half-American.

          • Papageno says:

            Never mind the silliness of a talented head case like Kleiber conducting the National Symphony, even while he was alive (he would have scoffed at being a guest conductor much less a MD ). Raising him from the dead would only lead to poor Carlos conducting the same limited repertoire while being consumed with his Daddy issues. And only the Berlin Phil. and Vienna would get to see his rotting corpse on the podium.

            As for American music, the Dallas Morning News critic actually pointed out that U.S. orchestras have been neglecting those composers for too long. It’s not just the National Symphony and Eschenbach (who I am sure will be blamed for the Vietnam War in the next Slipped Disc editorial). I’ve never heard the LA Philharmonic touch Hovanhess’ Mysterious Mountain, or Piston, McDowell, Howard Hanson, Griffes, and pieces by Barber and Schuman. Instead, we get Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World, La Mer, Symphonie Fantasique, and the same symphonies from Brahms, Mahler, and rather terrible pieces of new music (many to be played once and never to be heard again), year after year. The blame there falls on the folks in charge of programming.

      • Alan says:

        As Karajan once said, “Kleiber only conducts when his fridge is empty”.

    • sdReader says:

      Carlos Kleiber’s repertory was much too small to hold the position of music director. Anywhere.

  • Beaumont says:

    The Vienna State Opera announced next year’s programme today.

    One Premiere will be Mozart’s IDOMENEO conducted by Eschenbach.

  • Boom says:

    I heard Eschenbach’s two Bruckner broadcasts with the NY Philharmonic – the 9th from 2008 and the 6th from 2012. In both cases the orchestral playing was superb, the phrasing and tempi utterly compelling, and the 9th ‘breathed’ like no other performance I ever heard.

    Judging by these two broadcasts, and assuming that Eschenbach indeed has given some lackluster performances lately, I think the right way to describe him is as “wildly inconsistent”, rather than “mediocre” conductor. After all, other so-called great conductors whose performances had shown similar swings from ‘inspired’ to ‘disastrous’ – Barbirolli and Furtwangler most readily come to mind.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      Knappertsbusch is for me the first conductor that i have in mind when we talk about inconsistencies. Yet, I don’t mind listening to many of Kna’s less inspired performances in order to discover those that are truly outstanding – which often rank with the best things ever recorded.

      Eschenbach is indeed inconsistent – although his Bruckner concerts are usually among the best stuff he does with the NSO. I also attended his Bruckner 6th with the NY Phil and I was actually disappointed because when he conducted the work in Washington in 2011 or 2010 (don’t remember exactly) it was so much better – indeed, it ranked among the best NSO concerts that I ever heard.

      And this is why I continue to support Eschenbach in spite of his inconsistencies: because at his best he’s wonderful indeed – and who can forget his Fidelio for instance? A lot of his work this season was “business as usual” to quote Anne Midgette, but there were also inspired moments. And for those who criticize his choice of soloists: among his “circle of friends” Barto and Bohorquez are indeed not world class status, but Matthias Goerne and Christian Tetzlaff certainly are.

      And I believe I heard more memorable concerts from Eschenbach than from his NSO predecessors. Ivan Fischer did not connect with the orchestra; his best concert IMO was one a few years before he was appointed NSO principal conductor (a wonderful Beethoven 4th and an unforgettable Coriolan Overture; when Fischer repeated the Coriolan Overture during his brief tenure, the results were nowhere as memorable.) Slatkin did improve the orchestra, but after a fresh start, he did not live up to the promise of the first few seasons. Rostropovich was great in Shostakovich and little else, and the orchestra sounded technically much worse than now.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        an unforgettable Coriolan Overture; when Fischer repeated the Coriolan Overture during his brief tenure, the results were nowhere as memorable

        Or maybe you simply weren’t in the right mood the second time? It is hard to imagine such a big difference between two performances of the same work, especially when it is a fairly short and simple piece like this. Maybe you are “inconsistent” as a listener, too? Aren’t we all “inconsistent” in our receptivity? Aren’t all artists “inconsistent”? Unless everything they do is just mechanical routine?

        • Don Ciccio says:

          Well, maybe I was in a different mood, or maybe I had higher expectations based on what I remembered, or maybe I did not remember as well as I thought I did, or maybe the 2001 Ivan Fischer was not the same musician as he was in 2007. Or maybe, maybe, maybe.

          As for the difference in performances, it was not too big (as far as I remember) even though they were some six years apart. But there was something magic the first time; you had a sense that it was one of those nights that everything just clicked. This simply did not happen the second time.

  • Alan Karnovitz says:

    As a long time concert goer who resides in Washington DC, I would like to respond to some of the comments made on this blog. One has to manage expectations. The NSO did not fare that well under its previous conductors. Not since Dorati have they had a conductor firmly established in interreting the core reportoire of the modern symphony. Rostropovich was a great musician but not such a great conductor and the orchestra lived off of Russian music for some 17 years. Slatkin was just a disppointment. Eschenbach is clearly no Haitink or Muti, but then again the NSO could never attract a conductor of that caliber. But Eschembach has shown some moments of exalted conducting exspecially in the music of Bruckner and Strauss. He has also brought his piano talents to the great Schubert song cycles. I also think he has cultivated a more refined sound to the orchestra that was overly bright and bombastic under his predecessors. On balance I think he has done a pretty decent job. Would I like the orcehstra to imporve and play at the levle of Cleveland and Chicago. You bet. I just wonder if that is in the cards. it takes years and years of great conducting to evolve a highly cultivated and unique orchestra sound. The NSO is not there but they are a fine orcehstra and well worth hearing.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    It is astonishing how automatic the responses are when the name Eschenbach crops up in these columns. They are nearly all full of vituperation and derision, but there are exceptions. I have followed his career both as a pianist and as a conductor – I remember his debut with the Hamburg Symphony in Bruckner 3 back in 1973, an amazingly bold choice for someone in his early thirties venturing to make his mark on the podium – and I have to say that as a musician he comes nowhere near the bottom of the pile. If he were as completely incompetent as a conductor and as insufferable as a human being, as so many make out, there must be something seriously wrong with orchestral managements in the four quarters of the earth to keep re-engaging him. And no, I don’t buy the argument that this is all because of PR and the spin his clever agents put on matters, and the gay mafia who want to protect one of their own, or any of the other quite absurd reasons advanced to explain why concerts season after concert season you can see him conducting the great orchestras of the world. If you had once employed a plumber to service or repair vital systems in your home, and he turned out to be utterly useless, you wouldn’t go on calling his number and inviting him to repeat the same disaster scenario. Give the guy a break please – he’s not Satan incarnate.

    • Marvin M says:

      Your comparison to a plumber is not logical. A plumbing repair is a concrete, black and white matter, that is not open to interpretation. When the job is done, either the tap still leaks, or it doesn’t. It is black and white. Conducting and musical interpretation are abstract and music is itself abstract, so it is not so cut and dry. Eschenbach may indeed get invited to conduct major orchestras and may even get some decent reviews while doing that. The facts though tell a different story when it concerns orchestras with whom he has been engaged as a music director. These, sadly, have been failures, with the exception of Houston, and as he gets older, he is getting worse, it seems. No, he may not be “Satan incarnate”, but for many here, he seems to come pretty close.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        Both the plumber and the conductor have a job to do. The conductor has to deal with phrasing, matters of intonation, rhythm and balance, in other words fine-tuning the system. If a tap is dripping, you still get water coming out of it, even if the overall effect is not the desired one. The plumber’s job is to put that right. I fail to see why you thought my analogy inapposite but you are of course free to challenge any statement or argument made in these columns. However, on the cardinal point as to why Eschenbach is constantly re-engaged, you have clearly not delivered. So, job not done.

      • Yehuda says:

        Why do so many know-it-alls seem to know nothing at all? Narrow…narrower…narrowist. Howdoes one come to wanting to kick someone when he’s down? Have they learned nothing from life? Close to Satan incarnate….oy veh.

        • Hilary says:

          Thankfully a few voices of humanity and reason (Alexander and Yehuda) within this frequently gruesome trail of comments. I’ve been impressed with Eschenbach’s London appearances, and his choice of soloist in Messiaen’s ‘des canyons aux etoiles’

  • Larry VanDeSande says:

    Didn’t Philadelphia go bankrupt with Eschenbach at the controls?

  • Pete says:

    So, let me see if have have this correctly…

    We’re talking about an overpaid, overrated, 2nd rate hack, who gives the best gigs to his friends and cronies…

    In Washington, DC.

    Hey, are we talking about Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, or one of Obama’s ambassadorial appointments??

  • Talking the talk says:

    With very few exceptions, in this day and age the music business and conducting careers in particular are all run along the less than favourable ways outlined above.

    Music is paraded in ever shabbier garments and too much slap as ‘energetic’ conductors channel their vitality into music making at the expense of the artistic content and richness inherent in these great works of art, this being pretty much the norm everywhere.

    Conducting is after all relatively easy to fake if you have a ‘big personality’ and logically the public has to be complicit in making ‘stars’ and therefore complicit in making successful careers and therefore more opportunities out of these well connected ‘dynamos’.

    In this way I don’t see Eschenbach’s success as any different, a career based on contacts, politics and hype. He is however an interesting and imaginative musician which is a lot more than can be said for most other conductors who have neither professional technique or any real musical insight or imagination and use music as vehicle for their own ego.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Here’s a more balanced editorial from someone who, like me and unlike many of those who complain here, regularly attend NSO concerts in Washington. The ratings are of course, subjective, but I agree with the overall premise of the editorial: that Eschenbach’s tenure in Washington has been far from a disaster and that the positives outweight the negatives.

  • Aquarius says:

    Eschenbach belongs to his own world, endlessly searching for a spiritual existence; and in his case, through music. Do all these commentaries matter?! “Menschliches, Allzumenschliches”

  • Chad says:

    Houston loved him and still does. Yeah, he was expensive, but the Houston Symphony never sounded better. I can’t remember a bad concert with him conducting the HSO. When he comes back to guest conduct it is a packed house. He brings out the absolute best in this orchestra and they still max it out when he conducts them.

  • Mike Miller says:

    I just got back from Symphony Center in Chicago where Christoph Eschenbach conducted the Civic Orchestra (student training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony) in a performance of Brahms’ Symphony #2. It was magnificent! Eschenbach’s interpretation was second to none, and under his inspired leadership the Civic Orchestra sounded like the Chicago Symphony. Bravo, maestro!