The inner life of Christoph Eschenbach

The inner life of Christoph Eschenbach


norman lebrecht

April 28, 2016

The outgoing music director of the National Symphony Orchestra has come in for much criticism in these columns for his inflated fees and questionable decisions in the music business.

His side of the story is not often heard. Washington cellist Steven Honigberg has spent quality time with his conductor and has put together a 40-minute portrait of a maestro he regards as a ‘very private man, much maligned’.

Watch here. You see it first on Slipped Disc.

He has a blunt view of critics. ‘There is a very big problem. We – you, me, all our colleagues in the orchestra – we know our scores much better than the critic… I mostly don’t read them.’



  • Doug says:

    Won’t even bother watching. Petty money grubber who happened to choose a “career” in music. A perfect example of the problem in the “industry” today.

    • ruben greenberg says:

      I think you’re depriving yourself of a very interesting interview. He comes across as very cultured, sensitive and insightful. As for his conducting,…..well….

    • doremi says:

      No use to waste time watching this “converted-pianist-into-a-money-business”
      There are a lot of ‘pianists’ who go to conducting and other easy things to do due to lack of musical inspiration.

  • John Kelly says:

    Actually you should watch, it’s interesting and well done.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Agreed. Perhaps if more folks viewed this, they might appreciate CE as a person with strong convictions. I’m sure that he wants to be remembered as a musician; all the rest, especially the money, is of little importance.

      Commendations to Slippedisc for publishing this without editorial comment so that readers can draw their own conclusions.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    He is right that about the limitations of critics.

    • Halldor says:

      Not really. You don’t need intimate knowledge of a score to appraise a performance, any more than you need to have memorised the recipe to know if your soufflé’s been burned.

      • Mark Henrikse says:

        If you are going publish critiques of other people’s soufflés, you need to know a bit more than whether or not its your taste or not for anyone to care!

  • Jon H says:

    Never really had a problem with him. He does conduct sort of like a pianist in the moment – but it has brought some interesting touches that are welcome for an evening. In some way it has added to the understanding of the music that hearing the safe, favorite recording doesn’t. Sure, it’s pushed the realms of acceptability at times – but he is enough of a musician that it challenges the open minded to rethink the favorite recording, and in all cases love the music that much more. So, regardless of what anyone has said, it’s been rewarding. As for his fees – who cares if another conductor would’ve been more rewarding for less money? If you’re getting over grief and you need a concert tonight – if that guy gets you through it, who cares about the money? Music is more important than that.
    In music school they used to say if you can’t be a composer, be a performer – if not a performer, a teacher – if not a teacher, a music critic. Kinda true.

    • Jon H says:

      Of course, we all have to be our own music critic, including conductors, instrumentalists, etc. But whenever there is a bad review, I don’t automatically assume I’d hear things the same way.
      I know when a critic hears things in a similar way – that person builds a sort of trust in other instances. But when a critic trashes something that isn’t really that bad – there will be a portion of readers who never trust their judgment again.
      Some are going for trendy word usage over accuracy. I guess some readers are into the way they write more than what they are actually saying. But the trendy word might just be the wrong word.
      A world-class production is also expensive and elitist. Masterpieces become conservative programming. Inexperienced conductors become fresh. Maybe this fools some people…

      • Petros Linardos says:

        – A bland performance is one “refreshingly free of interpretive agenda”.

        – A challenging program is one with contemporary music. As if, say, a night of songs by Hugo Wolf is not challenging enough.

    • Mark Henriksens says:

      Since the teacher is the one who teaches the performer, the composer, and the critic, maybe he deserves a little more respect.

    • Bruce Johnston says:

      Many of our greatest conductors are or have been pianists. Eschenbach is not after money, nor is he after fame. Music has been his romance all of his life. He is a lovely man. How sad that so many people cast stones at this great man. Those folks should focus on their own shortcomings and on the fact that they have not accomplished nearly as much as this wonderful man. He is very much an introvert, a private man. However, he is not hiding anything. Money is not his happiness. Music, and the dear friends in his life ( mostly other musicians) are what he holds in his heart.

  • Dave T says:

    “we know our scores much better than the critic… I mostly don’t read them.”
    What, the critics or the scores?
    Zingggg! (couldn’t resist)

  • Steven Honigberg says:

    After completing the film I discovered I mostly left out Maestro’s arm gestures. I quickly ammended the crops away from just his face so that the frames would include this man’s expressive arm gestures, especially when he delivers what he is saying with passion, which is often. Incidentally, the concert following the hour long interview was exciting and flawless as Maestro conducted from memory as usual.

    • ruben greenberg says:

      Mr. Honigberg,
      Thank you for this fine video; admirably put together. There’s certainly enough material for a second one. You might also want to go on to other subject matter; the real makings of a film director here.

    • Nick says:

      When are people going to stop using the vastly overused and infrequently deserved term “Maestro”? It seems almost all orchestras, even amateur and semi-pro ones, apply it to their Music Directors and even many of their guest conductors. This totally devalues the term and renders it all but meaningless.

  • Leo says:

    While it is clear that the attempt here was well-intentioned, the video is simply far far too long. The objective was clearly to show Eschenbach in a favorable light, as a person who deeply loves and lives for music. That is all good and fine. I have many friends, and I myself also deeply love music and live for it. The problem is, that is simply not enough if he is the music director of an orchestra and wants to lead the top ensembles in the world today. He may have been a decent pianist long ago, but he is simply not a great conductor and he has somehow managed to repeatedly leave behind a trail of ill-will and orchestras who realize, quickly after engaging him as a music director, that he doesn’t have what it takes. Zürich Tonhalle was his first failure, followed by the Orchestre de Paris, which ended very badly, The Philadelphia Orchestra ended even worse and the National Symphony didn’t last too long unfortunately and I have heard that there are not many who will miss him there. Eschenbach’s greed and avarice are well known throughout the entire business. His very, I mean very, weird and poor taste in soloists has hurt his reputation beyond repair and infuriated all of the orchestras where he was music director.
    So, Mr. Honigberg, while you certainly have a soft spot for this man as a person and as a serious lover of music, you can not ignore, which you did in your video, the far too many negative opinions of Eschenbach and how he can justify his lust for money and his insatiable greed, when at the same time disappointing hundreds of orchestra musicians and thousands of concert goers over many years. He is now an old man and deserves human respect, but sadly for so many, myself included, I can not respect him on a high level musically and his greed and obsession with money is, in my opinion, incongruous with a person who lives for the art, as he likes to project and Mr. Honigberg wants to emphasize in his film.
    If you want more people to watch this, edit it down by 80%.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    I heard the concert with the two Prokofiev symphonies, and a couple tour preview concerts, recently. All of the NSO concerts I’ve heard with Eschenbach have been satisfying musical experiences; never dull. I first time I heard him conduct was a memorable Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet in g min with the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall, some years back. I’ve been a fan ever since so this was a very interesting interview for me. Thanks!

  • Cyril Blair says:

    That was fascinating – a lot of great archival footage. Curious though that if he hates beaches, he would buy a home in the Canary Islands.

  • Bruce says:

    Regarding critics, Hermann Hesse wrote a good essay on the subject. He basically said (I’m trying to condense it) that a good critic doesn’t try to be “objective,” but rather explains his subjectivity in such a way that readers can see where he’s coming from. That way they can, hopefully, tell from the review what the performance was actually like. His analogy was that readers could use the critic like a lens: if you’re looking at a picture through a lens and you know the lens is tinted green, then you can adjust your perceptions and figure out what the actual colors are.

  • Respect says:

    My only reaction is to note how incredibly dull Eschenbach is as a personality, utterly without spark and two critical aspects: how low quality the piano playing is ( Joachim Kaiser referred to him, years ago, as terribly overrated) and how incapable he is of even rudimentary tasks, such as clarity, balance or even logic in the orchestra. The knowledge that he is a great businessman and a weak musician is not a secret.

    • Steven Honigberg says:

      Shocking comment. That you would have the nerve to write this commentary on this thread says a lot about your personality and tells everyone who loves classical music that you know absolutely nothing about this man. Shocking!

      • Uncle Sam says:

        Without wading into this too deeply, I would only say that you must accept that others may not share your opinion of Eschenbach or anyone else for that matter. That is their right and you should welcome that, if you value free speech, thought and opinion. If we would accept and encourage your attitude of refusing any criticism on this blog thread of a video report that doesn’t once challenge a very controversial musician, one who is clearly not appreciated by others as you appreciate him, then we have entered into some sort of censorship, totalitarian system of fear to voice an opinion. The United States today has repeatedly shown that respect of democracy and free speech are not among its core values anymore. Reading your refusal to accept any form of criticism and freedom of opinion and speech only confirms that this. Videos like yours, only showing praise and respect and avoiding any hard questions, reminds me of the type of “reports” and “documentaries” down in the former Soviet and communist times by undemocratic and totalitarian countries. Not even in the former East bloc or Russia would that be seen as acceptable nowadays.

      • Respect says:

        What I find “shocking” is that you are such an opponent of free speech that you feel the need to troll here and make sure that no one is allowed to have a commonly shared critical perspective that differs from your own. The view that the Subject at hand is a vastly overrated commodity is not exactly an original perspective, despite your apparent seduction by your subject. I’m embarrassed for you that you are so think skinned about your subject, despite your minority view.

  • Retired musician says:

    I played with Eschenbach many times. In my opinion, he was a bad conductor, a charlatan. He got lost in concerts nearly every week, hardly evidence that he knew the music. He conducted without a score because of vanity and conceit. There were train wrecks every week, and frequently he forgot which movement was next, or which section had the first theme.
    Worst of all, the music was dead in his hands. Mahler 3 that was so slow that it last over two hours.
    Eschenbach nearly destroyed the Philly Orchestra. They are just recovering now. And he cost them nearly 3 million per year.

    • Novice says:

      I’m a classical fan but no expert, so I appreciate your direct critiques and examples (not vague language akin to “this guy just sucks”).

      I saw him conduct in New York a couple months ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Respect says:

    Oh, did I fail to mention it’s a dismally edited film as well? Sorry if jot everyone loves your magnum opus, that’s life.

  • patrick Gillot says:

    he is not a good conductor and he like Barenboim who are great piano player and great people should come to accept that.

  • patrick Gillot says:

    I try to make a comment that he and Barenboim are terrible conductors but your stupid site would not allow what everybody knows already!

    • Anonymous says:

      He is a master of music his childhood was hard if you want to criticize CE you need to lower your expectations

  • Petros Linardos says:

    I am confused at Eschenbach’s pianistic “lineage”. One can indeed trace the lineage back to Beethoven, but not the way he explains it. It is simpler: Elisa Hansen, Artur Schnabel, Theodor Leschetitzky, Karl Czerny, Ludwig van Beethoven.

    But Eschenbach mentions Schnabel as a pupil of Karl Heinrich Bart. Is that correct? It is not backed up in the wikipedia.

  • Brian from DC says:

    Fascinating video. The spleen expressed by some on this blog is predictable. Mr Honigberg is a member of the NSO and has performed under Mr Eschenbach in scores of concerts around the world. So his respect for the conductor carries credibility which is lacking among many in the anti-Eschenbach claque whose knowledge of the man seems mostly based on reading selective reviews and on rumors that circulate on Slippedisc.

  • Nick says:

    Eschenbach is the only conductor I have ever heard who managed to open the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth with four quavers somehow played prior to the minim. And this was with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on tour! Admittedly it was earlier in his conducting career but every conductor takes especial care with the opening of the Fifth. Eschenbach did not.

  • GP713 says:

    I find it fascinating that no one has mentioned the outstanding performances that CE led while at the Houston Symphony; that the musicians were thrilled to have him as their Music Director for 11 years. Audiences and musicians loved him during his time in Houston. You might criticize him, but at least be objective and acknowledge that he brought inspirational and memorable concerts to the Houston Symphony musicians and the community.

  • Retired musician says:

    Unless you were an insider, you would never know how often the orchestra musicians save the conductor from making a huge mess. I know from personal knowledge that he was the same in Houston as in Philadelphia, except in Philadelphia the musicians publicly expressed their anger and dissatisfaction from the very beginning.
    Great orchestras make bad conductors look good. It’s their job. The public has no clue, or do the critics.
    I never understood why conductors with no skills get a free pass. Any other endeavor and it matters. If a conductor has an odd affect, tight pants, a strange haircut, tight pants, etc. the public and critics fall for in love. Not to mention boards, who have money but no idea. And managers are even worse.

  • Anonymous says:

    He conducted mullers theme only with his face

  • june egbuonu says:

    fascinating,worth watching over again many times.Thanks

  • Tom2Tones says:

    For all you haters; Eschenbach’s understanding of how to handle Mahler and Bruckner from the podium is far superior to most conductors, and by most I mean almost all.