Last July, when Christoph Eschenbach began his first season as the music director of the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Symphony's summer home, he seemed like no ordinary conductor.
Eschenbach--who returns tonight to the Los Angeles Philharmonic after an absence from Southern California of a dozen years--looked almost as if he had descended from another planet. There he was, in a terrific white, collarless, Japanese-designer summer tux, a bit of incongruous high style among a frumpy shirt-sleeved orchestra and the no-nonsense Midwest audience. And there he was beginning his tenure with a loud, raucous recent piece by Christopher Rouse, which caused audible sighs of protest from the audience at first.
But Eschenbach not only won over the crowd by the end of the Rouse, he got a roaring, football-stadium-style standing ovation after an illuminating performance of Mahler's Fifth at evening's end. The hordes didn't just rush off to their cars as the Hollywood Bowl crowds do.
All of which lends credibility to his comments about his regular-season orchestra, the Houston Symphony. "[It] is now very popular," he says, as a good music director should. "It is No. 1 among the arts institutions in Houston." And one is inclined to believe him, however prominent and hip the Houston Grand Opera, the Alley Theater and the Menil Collection may be.
His popularity, in fact, has made Eschenbach late for this telephone interview--a record-signing went on much longer than expected, and that is something that would have been unheard of in Houston eight years ago.
"When I arrived [in 1988]," he says, "Houston was experiencing a bad economy; the orchestra suffered a 15% pay cut, and it had not had a good relationship with my predecessor [Sergiu Commissiona]. I was definitely conscious of beginning a new era."
Now, Houston audiences are treating their music director like a star, and so are the record companies, with BMG having just picked up the Eschenbach/Houston package.
Among other things, his tenure in Houston has helped the 55-year-old Eschenbach overcome the reputation of being just another pianist-turned-conductor, although Eschenbach claims that he has always been a conductor first, pianist second.
"It was my intention from childhood on to conduct, and I studied it at the conservatory. I didn't switch all of a sudden," he says.
A pianist with a startling facility at rhythmic articulation, Eschenbach happened to win a couple of important piano competitions (the 1962 Haskil in Lucerne and the 1965 Munich International) and was practically handed a career on a platter with a contract from Deutsche Grammophon and support from the likes of Herbert von Karajan.
"I preferred to do my pianist years, rather than becoming a conductor at some small opera company," he says. "I also continued to study, but now first-hand, the manner of conductors, the good ones and the bad ones. From the bad ones, I learned not to neglect the work on concerti. Sometimes you would come to the rehearsal, and they would open their score and it would close again by itself, because it had never been opened.
"From the good ones I learned to make chamber music with the soloist and to make chamber music within the orchestra. One of my goals is for the musicians to feel the music making between themselves. Also, my interest in transparency and clarity has to do with my obsession with analyzing scores and my need to know what's behind every note."
Some of that obsession with analysis comes from Eschenbach's background. The '50s, the period when Eschenbach was growing up in Germany, was a highly analytical, ambitious and prophetic time for German musicians and particularly for German composers who were busily creating a new, futuristic postwar music. And as a young musician he took readily to it. As a pianist he premiered much new work and developed friendships with composers like Hans Werner Henze, who wrote his Second Piano Concerto for Eschenbach in 1969.
And that interest continues today. Last week Eschenbach, saying that he tries to make the programming in Houston "as colorful as possible for the audience," conducted Henze's most recent symphony, his Eighth. And he takes particular pleasure in the fact that the audience responded remarkably well to it. "This morning we had an open rehearsal for the Henze," he says proudly, "and it was our best audience in two years."
As his Ravinia tunic revealed, Eschenbach also has a flair for the theater, and lately has been working with visionary stage directors, including Robert Wilson, whose production of Wagner's "Parsifal" he conducted in Houston three years ago. He also wrote music to accompany a Wilson production of the late Heiner Muller's play "Quartett" in Ludwigsburg, Germany.
So why so conventional a program for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, including the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony and the Elgar Cello Concerto, with Steven Isserlis as soloist? Partly, Eschenbach replies, because the orchestra wanted it that way. But only partly.
As it turns out, Eschenbach is as much a classicist as he is a musical adventurer. He loves the classical song literature, for instance, and knowing how hard it is to sell vocal recitals these days has made that a particular cause. He is one of only a few major conductors who regularly accompanies singers in recital programs.
And he remains devoted to the standard repertory. "The fifth symphony of Beethoven is now as exciting or more exciting for me than it was 30 years when I studied it, or 25 years ago when I first conducted it," he says.
In the end, it's the combination that may be the key to Eschenbach's successes, drawing autograph-seekers to Houston record stores and causing a commotion in Chicago: the conductor as classicist and visionary, together.
* Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m. $6-$58. (213) 365-3500.