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In classical music circles, 2010 might have been Washington’s year of the maestro. After all, this was the year Christoph Eschenbach took the reins as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and Kennedy Center. The newly created dual position was meant to signal closer coordination between the two institutions, both of them bent on maintaining top-dog status over the upstart alliance between the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Bethesda’s Strathmore arts center.
Alas, the NSO’s much-ballyhooed successor to Leonard Slatkin hasn’t been around much. Since debuting in September and conducting Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in October, he’s been on leave—in Paris. Which means we’ll have to wait until 2011 to find out what all that maestro-talk meant.
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And we might even have to wait longer: New orchestra directors rarely shake things up immediately. This is true even for Eschenbach, who comes in with a big mandate: The German-born conductor and pianist has one of the most compelling bios in classical music, as the war orphan who became director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. By hiring him, the NSO again signals its ambition to join the elite ranks of the Big Five orchestras, a circle that includes Eschenbach’s old employer but not his new one.
No matter how grand the ambitions, it’s a good bet he’ll treat the first season as an opportunity to test the waters and win over audiences with familiar fare. So despite Eschenbach’s affinity for contemporary European music, early programming will likely lean toward the classics. (With his debut concert, Eschenbach split the difference, sneaking in a work by new German composer Matthias Pintscher before launching into Beethoven’s Ninth.)
Morale is up among NSO musicians—higher, at least, than during Slatkin’s final years. Back then, players complained that the conductor was often distracted and sloppy, skating by on technical prowess rather than engaging deeply with the music. Management considered him unenthusiastic about office duties—notably, the ones that involved schmoozing wealthy donors. The novelty of his focus on British and American contemporary composers had also worn off. Every piece of the Eschenbach hype—team player, European sophistication, emotion over technique, a focus on core Continental repertoire—carries a not-so-subtle subtext: he’s no Slatkin.
But for now, that’s all we know. 2010, in the end, was less the year of Eschenbach than the year of Not Leonard Slatkin. If the new maestro has big changes in mind, whether to programming or personnel, the board is patient to give him time to make them. For audiences, those who missed his fall dates will have to wait until Jan. 20, when he returns to the Kennedy Center for the NSO’s 50th anniversary concert. Come next season, he may have more ambitious ideas to try out. By then, it might finally be the year of Christoph Eschenbach.