Breaking: D. C. seeks new music director

Breaking: D. C. seeks new music director


norman lebrecht

February 18, 2015

The Christoph Eschenbach era, weary and uninspiring, is over.

He will leave in mid-2017, after seven years. Face is saved in the press release below, but no one should be surprised that new-broom president Deborah Rutter should want a livelier music director. The prevailing mood must be one of profound relief.


Read Why Eschenbach attracts controversy here.

Read Anne Midgette today here. Sample: It’s open to question whether Eschenbach has actually transformed the orchestra, redefined his post as music director of the Kennedy Center as well as of the NSO, or fully merited one of the highest conductor’s salaries in the United States. The NSO has turned in some fine concerts on his watch, but hasn’t fully shaken its issues with ensemble playing, and its occasional issues in the winds and brass.

press release:


(WASHINGTON, D.C.)—The National Symphony Orchestra and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced today that Christoph Eschenbach will not extend his position as Music Director after the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season.  He will then have completed seven seasons as Music Director and an additional season as Music Director Designate.  With the 2017-2018 season he will become Conductor Laureate of the National Symphony for a three-year term.

“I am proud of the legacy I leave and I am deeply grateful to the musicians who have joined with me to create an internationally prominent and unified ensemble,” stated Maestro Eschenbach. “By 2017 I will have served as Music Director of American orchestras for almost 30 years, and it makes sense to step away from these obligations.  Nevertheless I am happy to accept this new role as Conductor Laureate which will allow our collaboration to continue and flourish in the years to come.”

Jeanne Ruesch, Chairman of the National Symphony Orchestra Association Board of Directors, commented, “Christoph has successfully raised the artistic quality and standing of the National Symphony Orchestra. He has given NSO audiences many thrilling nights in our concert hall. The entire board joins me in thanking him for his contributions and commitment to our beloved orchestra.”

Executive Director Rita Shapiro added, “We are deeply grateful for Maestro Eschenbach’s work with the National Symphony Orchestra, particularly in the engagement of new musicians. His tenure has greatly strengthened the NSO, and we look forward to the continued relationship.”

The position as Conductor Laureate will begin in 2017-2018, and will end with the 2019-2020 season.  During each of those seasons he will spend a minimum of two weeks with the NSO.

Christoph Eschenbach came to the National Symphony as Music Director Designate in 2009, and formally became Music Director of the NSO and the Kennedy Center with the 2010-2011 season. Steeped in the standard repertoire, he is widely credited with re-focusing the NSO’s approach to the core canon of Central European orchestral music. Additionally, under his leadership, the NSO has commissioned or co-commissioned 11 works by the end of the current season, eight of them by American composers.

The Orchestra’s board will form a search committee to begin the process of finding the next Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra.



  • MacroV says:

    Boy, American is just opening up for Sir Simon! Chicago (assuming Muti doesn’t re-up), New York and now Washington all available around the time he leaves Berlin.

    It’s a pity the NSO has not really had a great artistic leader since Dorati, nearly 40 years ago. Rostropovich was a great cellist, limited conductor; Slatkin somehow never brought the fresh perspective that made him successful in St. Louis, and Eschenbach is, well, you be the judge.

    Unfortunately, as an occasional resident, Washington has always struck me as a place where music doesn’t matter that much to people, politics perhaps being the real entertainment in town.

    Deborah Rutter is the best in the business; hope she can bring some vision and a real leader to the NSO, which should be a terrific orchestra but in the years I’ve heard it just never seemed to prove why it mattered.

    • Brian Hughes says:

      I would be very surprised if Muti did not renew in Chicago. All signs seem to indicate a mutual love-fest among the conduct, orchestra, and community.

      • close observer says:

        I’m not sure it’s quite the love fest you say it is. Since Muti’s arrival Deborah Rutter left, followed by the longest tenured Vice President of Artistic Planning in the industry, Martha Gilmer. And then the next-highest person in the Artistic Department, Nicolas Winter, also departed. And the word on the street now is that Vanessa Moss, Vice President of Operations for the CSO, is also interviewing for other jobs. So clearly there is no love fest between Muti and the senior staff of the CSO.

        • MacroV says:

          I have no idea of Deborah Rutter’s relationship with Muti, but after a little over a decade each in Seattle and Chicago, it’s not unreasonable to think she’d be open to a new challenge, even if I personally wouldn’t consider the Kennedy Center a better job than running the CSO.

          Martha Gilmer was at the CSO for nearly 40 years and the only wonder is why she didn’t leave years ago for a CEO job at another orchestra. Same for Vanessa Moss, who has been at the CSO nearly 30 years. Doesn’t necessarily say anything about their relationship with Muti.

          In any case, I suspect Mr. Lebrecht meant how the CSO public (and musicians?) feel about him.

    • Carmen Arroyo says:

      2017 and 2018 seem like magic years for conductors, surely Eschy eyes to win one of the Music Director jobs between New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, London Symphony, maybe potentially Bavarian Radio Symphony or maybe thinking to go back to his old job with the Paris Orchestra because of the new hall………he and his agent David Foster have many possibilities to choose for!!!

      • Max Grimm says:

        Surely you are joking…Berlin, Munich, Paris? Really!?

        • Roland says:

          I agree, you are joking, aren’t you? Eschenbach is old news and no major orchestra will ever touch him as music director. He has a terrible reputation and has ran into trouble and been dismissed from every orchestra that he was music director of, except Houston. All of the other were unmitigated disasters.

  • John-J says:

    This is truly wonderful news! I never could understand how this Eschenbach got where he got. I saw him conduct many times in Philadelphia, in Paris and once in Washington and every time I left bewildered as to how any orchestra would have anything to do with such a mediocre conductor. His interpretations where not even interesting, they were simply self indulgent and disjointed. Musician friends in Philadelphia repeatedly told me how much they suffered under his leadership, or rather lack of. They were particularly annoyed by his inconsistencies, rehearsing a passage over and over in rehearsal and him insisting on a certain phrasing or tempo and then at the concert, he would conduct that same passage exactly the opposite of what he said he wanted in the rehearsal, with no comment or apologies to the orchestra afterwards. He was definitely not liked for his aloofness and egocentrism, for his horrific choice of soloists, always bringing the same mediocre unknowns and forcing them down the audience and orchestra’s throats. Hopefully this will be the last we hear of this charlatan, who has already left behind much ill-will in the other places where he was music director and acrimoniously removed from his position, i.e. in Philadelphia, in Paris and most probably now the same story in Washington as well. I doubt than any orchestra would be masochistic enough to start this nightmare all over again with him. He should go back to playing piano and throw the stick away for good.

    • Francois Pique says:

      I agree with your observations regarding Eschenbach as a musician.
      I do not know him, but I often wondered whether or not he was sincere, as a musician or person.
      As in, I don’t like the way Eschenbach is doing this, but does he actually really feel it that way?
      He has a reputation for being a very good fundraiser.

  • Yuri says:

    This decision was inevitable and I knew that this would happen sooner, rather than later, the day the NSO signed Eschenbach. His conducting and programming never inspired, never captivated the audience. It always seemed like “old school” and very pretentious and uptight. I know that many audiences members, seated around me, shared these feelings and I noticed more and more of the audience members not returning to concerts and mumbling that they didn’t like this guy. Well, now the NSO has the opportunity to make the right choice and not make another failed appointment. Let’s hope that they get it right this time. Washington certainly deserves the best. Hopefully the new music director won’t break the bank, as I heard that Eschenbach was one greedy guy, insisting on getting paid the most money of any conductor and then only conducting a dozen weeks in the year and turning in lacklustre performances and boring the audience to death. Let’s turn the page and forget about him.

  • Richard says:

    Very well said John-J. I totally agree with you.

  • Liz Kaufmann says:

    The worse so called “prestigious” concert that I ever attended in my life was a Mozart recital of the Chinese violinist called Dan Zhu with Eschenbach on the piano at the Kennedy Centre, really out of tuned, unmusical, very basic student level playing who clearly didn’t merit being showcased in such an important concert series. My nephew who is a long time member of the NSO told me Eschenbach is really crazy about this young boy, forcing the orchestra management to invite him as the soloist in Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 which turned out to be also quite embarrassing. I am also ashamed to see how many times Eschenbach brought the muscle man steroid pianist called Tzimon Barto as soloist and heard him banging the piano through the concert acting as if he is the greatest pianist on earth. I believe the Eschenbach era has brought more shame than pride to our orchestra and community. It is really good to see Eschenbach goes away in 2 years time. Amen!

    • Kazuki says:

      I don’t know Tzimon Barto’s playing, judging from this video he is a fantastic pianist:
      but I can testify to all of you Maestro Eschenbach supports some of the brightest young talents in the music world today such as the great cellist Dimitri Maslennikov, the superbly talented violinists Iskandar Widjaja and Erik Schumann and also one of the most beautiful playing from the pianist Christopher Park that I heard in my life

      • Louise says:

        If they are all so bright and all so great, why is it that they seem to only perform under Eschenbach and few, if any, other conductors work with them. Why can’t I find any of their names on the programmes of major orchestras? Does Eschenbach have a contract of exclusivity with these unknowns? It all doesn’t add up. If Tzimon Barto were the genius that you, and Eschenbach, think he is, why isn’t he performing regularly with many other orchestras, under top world-renowned conductors? The same for the others that you mention.

  • NSO musician says:

    Sorry to disagree with the above comments but his music-making in Washington has been sincere, heartfelt and extremely satisfying. He may not be the most exciting conductor on the scene today (partly due to his age) but he certainly is experienced and experience in performance goes a long way with professional musicians. The principals he has hired – flute, trumpet, horn and oboe are all marvelous musicians. This will be his legacy. And he returns after 2017 for three seasons as conductor laureate – Bravo NSO board and management. This was a congenial way to say good-bye.

    • Walter says:

      It is good that you felt that Eschenbach’s music making has been “sincere, heartfelt and extremely satisfying.” Unfortunately for many in the audience that message was not received. The fact that he hired marvellous musicians hopefully is also true, but that still doesn’t make for a great audience listening experience in concert. You seem to forget that it is the audience for whom the concerts are given and who fund the orchestra, in part, through their purchase of tickets. Without entering into this polemic, I would only say, as a long-time subscriber to the NSO, that while I enjoyed some concerts under Maestro Eschenbach, I sadly was never impressed by this man, neither as a conductor, nor as a figure at the head of the NSO. I never had the feeling that Eschenbach was committed to Washington, to the community and to making something big out of his position. I sensed, from his onstage attitude and the one time that I met him, that he was doing us a favor by conducting our orchestra and that his interests were elsewhere. After reading up on him and his past, it immediately became evident that he has attracted a lot of controversy wherever he was as music director and as the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire, I find it troubling that he has been unable to be cherished and kept on by so many orchestras and was ultimately removed from his post, often under very bad press and it seems to me that he rubs a lot of people the wrong way, both musically and as a person.

      • NSO musician says:

        To Walter. You must be one of the few who remain planted in their seats after Eschenbach concerts. He is so often greeted with instantaneous and rousing applause in addition to well deserved standing ovations. His concerts are well sold which must have been important to those who appointed him Conductor Laureate. To the other NSO musician. I’m glad I don’t know you nor do I want to know you. So eloquent as well.

    • MacroV says:

      If you really are a NSO musician, one must respect your opinion about Eschenbach, but you’re probably giving him way too much credit for the NSO’s new hires. Assuming that as at most orchestras, it’s an audition committee that plays a major role in the hiring of new members, with the conductor having perhaps a more weighted vote but not absolute authority on the matter. Also, if you have served on audition committees, you would know better than most that the standard of play is so high these days that it’s almost impossible for any orchestra to hire a new player today who isn’t, at least on a technical level, a major improvement on the person being replaced, who was probably not at the peak of his/her powers. So it’s not a very high bar for a music director to “hire” great new players in this environment.

    • Mark Henriksen says:

      Heard a concert a few weeks ago that backs up what you are saying!

    • Tom Varley says:

      I attended two of Eschenbach’s concerts near the end of his Philadelphia tenure (Schubert ##8 & 9 and the Mahler 8th) and also have his Ondine CD of the Mahler 6th and several downloads of his Philadelphia performances. I found his work on these occasions some of the best music making I’d heard with the Orchestra in many years, always interesting and frequently quite a bit more. He seemed engaged and anything but rigid. The Mahler was superb and I’m sorry it was never issued, perhaps because some moron shouted “Amen” at the conclusion of the 1st movement, although you’d think it might have been possible to patch that over from the other performances or the rehearsals.

      During Sawallisch’s tenure, I had taken to avoiding his concerts because I found them so dull. I came away from the Eschenbach concerts wishing I’d heard him sooner and feeling he had gotten a raw deal from the Philadelphia critics.

      BTW, after the Schubert program Eschenbach and several members of the orchestra came back on stage and performed the “Trout” Quintet. Quite an encore!

      • Rgiarola says:

        Perhaps an unanimity doesn’t exist concerning a conductor, however the general opinion of all Philadelphia musicians about Sawallisch is quite near to it. They loved him and still do. In my opinion the orchestra had never been in such a good shape since that time. Besides it, the records produced during the 90’s to EMI are much more well regarded than Eschenbach ones for ondine.

        Anyway, It doesn’t mean you cannot prefer Eschenbach. It’s just a matter of opinion. I think.

  • Another NSO musician says:

    I agree with all of the above comments — especially those of John-J — except those of the other NSO musician.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Two more long years to grind on . . . If you can’t radiate joy or exude passion in music-making, who wants to pay a baby-sitter, much less the price of a seat, to see you?

    I want either Jurowski or Robertson most to replace him.

  • George says:

    One of the comments above mentions the Chinese violinist and Eschenbach protege, Dan Zhu. I actually totally forgot about those horrible NSO concerts with him and with good reason! I agree, they had to be the most offensive and unmusical concerts that I ever attended in Washington, with a doubt. I was told that Eschenbach considers this violinist among his greatest discoveries. There must be some sort of joke here, because I have never heard worse violin playing in my life. I remember, after the concerts, and still in disbelief that this violinist could be taken seriously, discovering online that he performs everywhere with Eschenbach and in one interview Eschenbach praises him as the best violinist living today. That alone makes me seriously doubt that Eschenbach is worthy of the post that he was given in Washington. Fortunately this “uninspiring” era will soon come to an end, but there are still, as the comment above reminds us, two years to go and it won’t be easy.

  • Jay Mickelson says:

    Dan Zhu may have been horrible, but there is actually worse in the Eschenbach ‘Worst Soloists in the World Collection’. Try Eschenbach’s ultimate pet soloist, the pianist Tzimon Barto. If you have been anywhere that Eschenbach conducts, whether that be in the U.S., Europe or China, you are bound to have been the undeserving victim of this pumped up on steroids pianist, as he is probably the only piano soloist with whom Eschenbach works regularly. It would actually be amusing if it weren’t so musically terrible. Mr. Barto takes himself ever so seriously and massacres the piano and the music in the process, much to the audience and orchestra musician’s dislike and then, guess what? Eschenbach has him invited back again the next season and again the next and again and again. It now appears that this show is finally over.

  • SAM pound says:

    The hyenas waiting for someone to fail are clearly out in force again on this website. Howling and scratching the dirt: disgusting creatures.

  • Rudiger says:

    Mein Gott! Our German conductor Mr. Eschenbach only seems to have failures with orchestras, everywhere. It is hard to understand, because he was a decent pianist and a very fine accompanist, but I guess that doesn’t translate into being a great conductor. But I think that with him it is also a human problem, as he is known to have difficulty in dealing with people and is not what you call in America, “warm and fuzzy”. Even in Germany, he comes off as rather weird.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I like the expression ‘even in Germany’.

    • David says:

      From Harold Nicholson’s diary, 16 April 1953:

      “I asked Malcolm Sargent whether the musical profession is as mean and
      jealous as the acting profession. He says it is far worse.”

      Many entries on this site certainly prove that. Great and holy art, eh?

      • Elodie Egan says:

        I wouldn’t say that the comments here are expressing “jealousy”. Actually quite the contrary. I wouldn’t call them all mean either, but like in politics and when in any public position, people are often either loved or despised. I have noticed over the years that Eschenbach certainly isn’t a unanimously appreciated artist or person. He has some who like him, but there is clearly something not right with this man, as he attracts a lot of animosity and lack of musical appreciation from very many people. The fact that he can’t hold a music directorship for anything more than a few seasons tells me that there is definitely something not right and even though he may give a few good concerts, he has a serious problem. It is actually a sad story to see a person with obvious talents not able to maintain the necessary quality and integrity to be successful. Maybe Eschenbach should stop conducting and go back to playing the piano or teaching others how to play piano.

  • Luis says:

    One name is in the air: Juanjo Mena.

  • Steven Honigberg says:

    I am a 30-year member of the cello section of the NSO. Mr. Eschenbach has given me the chance along with two of my cello section colleagues to perform Penderecki’s 38 minute Triple Cello Concerto (Concerto Grosso) with him conducting and the NSO April 30 and May 2. Adventurous and generous to say the least. He is all about respect. For the music and for his musicians. I like that. I’m sorry we didn’t record with him more often (as we did with Rostropovich) as he turned in some outstanding performances during his tenure.

  • Sarah Bentner says:

    As an NSO patron, I would have to disagree with your assessment of the new hires, particularly in the winds. I hear a principal flute player that is always flat, an inconsistent principal trumpet, and a wind section that plays chronically out of phase with one another. This is a problem heard often, even when Eschenbach is not on the podium. Although I have heard the winds sound very good from time to time, the orchestra will never be considered world-class until they can play together and in tune!

  • Ingvar says:

    It is an honourable thing to support young talented artists who haven’t been able to make their names on international level and to bring them to the wider public attention, something that a Maestro in the caliber of Eschenbach can/ should do. Sadly Eschenbach has different outlook on this issue. His motive of supporting young artists is mainly related to his infatuation and attraction to how they look, NOT based on their pure musical talents. So often Eschenbach uses his power and influence by insisting these “cute” looking a…b…c…young performers are the most incredibly talented new stars and that they have to be invited in the most prestigious places in the world. Again and again he invites this roster of “Eschenbach geniuses” to perform with him around the world while the reality speaks that these young artists are really of very mediocre talents. Dan Zhu, Iskandar Widjaja, Dimitri Maslennikov, Tzimon Barto are just few names to mention where nepotism plays huge part in Eschenbach power play.

  • Leialoha Perkins says:

    Iʻm a lover of music, not a critic, who arrived at Eschenbach through . . indirectly through Tschaikovskyʻs Concerto no. 1 played by Lang Lang, but under Jarvi. I love “Lang Langʻs Tchaikovsky,” “Jarviʻs Tchaikovsky,” and the Holstein-Schweisligʻs “Tchaikovsky.” And the community that heard them — recorded and played on the internet. Now, Iʻve learned more about orchestras and conductors and conductors and community but of course about soloists. and I canʻt tell the world enough: if Eschenbach introduced Lang Lang, bless him for that. (I read the criticisms about Lang Lang too, and learned from those, especially that Meanies and Irrelevancies seem always everywhere that a highly praised performer chances to be.) Most of all, I re-learned Tchaikovsky, which is something because I always loved him. So in every way, everything about the music, including the fascinating ins and outs of you who know so much and simply throw off or tread softly over — I thank you all for. Inane as this comment may be, it is really to thank everybody if ironically, yes, for many disapprovers, Eschenbach, Lang Lang and Tchaikovsky (whom Nicolai Rubinstein himself, truly a study to be learned from as an enraged critic who did not know his own limits . . . .but which fact or nonfact did manage to teach [somebody] something.

    Jarvi, the orchestra, the audience loved Tchaikovsky (Thank you, Mr. Lang). The performance showed how the music is just Simply yet Complexly ALL OF A PIECE!
    I find that incredible. And it took everybody to do it, in the face of the kind of criticisms from everywhere shared honestly … and not breaking down to nothing!