Didn’t see this one coming: The National Symphony Orchestra announced Wednesday that music director Christoph Eschenbach will be hanging up his black nehru jacket at the end of the 2016-2017 season. The news comes less than a year after the NSO extended his contract to 2017, a clear signal that they hoped to keep him around for the long haul, which makes this a bit awkward for them. (And for me, who predicted this meant he would be around for the long haul. Whoops.)
The decision was all his, as NSO executive director Rita Shapiro notes in an email that “Maestro Eschenbach’s decision grew out of several months of discussions regarding future seasons.” As Eschenbach tells it, his motivation was age and time on the job: “By 2017 I will have I will have served as music director of American orchestras for almost 30 years, and it makes sense to step away from these obligations,” he says in a press statement. Which is fair: Eschenbach turns 75 this week, and the multiple tasks of conducting, rehearsing, programming, auditioning, fundraising, and generally being the public face of the orchestra are enough to wear down someone much younger.
On the other hand, Eschenbach will be stepping down after just seven years, which isn’t very long for orchestra directors, the NSO in particular. He will tie Antal Doráti for shortest tenure in the orchestra’s history. The longest term director, Howard Mitchell, served for 20 years; the most celebrated, Mstislav Rostropovich, stayed for 17, and even the most embattled, Leonard Slatkin, stuck it out for 12, though all were younger than Eschenbach when they left.
Notably, Eschenbach isn’t breaking things off entirely. Following the 2016-2017 season, he will be something the NSO calls “conductor laureate” for the next three years, for which he will conduct at least two programs per season with the orchestra. But also notably, there was no announcement of his retirement from the profession of conducting, just from the NSO, which leaves open the question of if it’s really his age or if he’s heading to greener pastures. Perhaps the NSO, or just D.C., was too small time for him, kind of like Plácido Domingo’s spurning of the Washington National Opera for L.A. Or perhaps it just frees Eschenbach up to do more stuff, guest conducting or otherwise collaborating with other institutions around the globe without taking a permanent gig. “He has not spoken with us about plans after 2016-2017, other than those regarding the conductor laureate position,” writes Shapiro.
Back in 2010, snagging Eschenbach from the more esteemed Philadelphia Orchestra was a coup for the perpetually not-quite-Big-Five NSO. At the time, hopes were high for a turnaround from the Slatkin era. Eschenbach promised to rededicate the orchestra to European composers and standard repertoire (away from Slatkin’s focus on American music; unpopular but appropriate, given that it is the National Symphony Orchestra after all). He promised to improve musician quality with some new hires. He promised to take fundraising seriously. He promised to bring back that air of old world sophistication Washingtonians longed for since the Rostropovich years.
Up to now, it seems to have been working. Morale in the orchestra under Eschenbach has been reportedly higher (a contrast to the mutiny he faced back in Philadelphia from musicians who complained about the maestro’s impulsiveness). The NSO’s recent tours of Europe and South America were well received. The programming has been surprisingly interesting, given the standard repertoire thing, often highlighting well-known composers’ less well-known works, as well as a number of commissions of new pieces by contemporary composers—-mostly, but not exclusively, European. His personal connections have drawn some big name talents to the Kennedy Center like René Fleming and Lang Lang. And while this is impossible to measure, it does seem, from my perspective, that musicianship has improved. Some of the NSO’s concerts this season have been the tightest I’ve heard them play.
And it’s been good for Eschenbach too, who’s been earning one of the highest salaries in the U.S. orchestra world, reportedly over $2 million.
So while it’s true that he hasn’t completely transformed the NSO, as Anne Midgette writes in the Washington Post, I think there hasn’t been enough time to tell. Improving quality through new hires is a slow process. And it’s been noticeable; even the not-always-so-great brass section has been sounding better as of late.
The bigger question is who will take over next. If it wants to stick to Europeans, maybe the NSO can try to woo back Iván Fischer, rumored to be the NSO’s first choice ahead of Eschenbach, though that didn’t work the last time. Generally speaking, European conductors like to run their orchestras like mini-dictatorships, which would make the NSO and Kennedy Center’s collaborative leadership model a harder sell (and which is what made team-player Eschenbach such a remarkable find). If the NSO wants to go back to Americans and continue marrying up, hey, soon-to-be-ex New York Philharmonic director Alan Gilbert’s suddenly free. Or how about—-I know this is a crazy idea, not just for the NSO but the classical world in general —- hiring a woman? It’s worked out pretty well with Marin Alsop for the Baltimore Symphony. Or maybe the NSO can follow the L.A. Philharmonic’s lead and get one of those 20-year-old Venezuelan prodigies El Sistema churns out. At least the age thing won’t be an issue.