Bald head and a black high-necked concert uniform – the first impression of Christoph Eschenbach confers the mystic aura of a music preacher. Yet, his dark eyes gleam with affection, revealing that this isn’t a stern music educator at work, but a music interpreter who works at eye level with his musicians; someone who embarks on a journey, looking for the special something in music.

In February, Eschenbach celebrates his 80th birthday, but the chief conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin – in his first season there – is nowhere near retirement. “I’ve started all over again in Berlin, because it’s a new challenge,” Eschenbach admits. The musical climate of this cultural metropolis is another magnet for him. “The wonderful thing about Berlin is that there’s no competitiveness between the orchestras. Together, they claim to be world class.”

Christoph Eschenbach © Manu Theobald
Christoph Eschenbach
© Manu Theobald

Maybe it’s also a form of homecoming for globetrotter Eschenbach, who experienced losing his home early on in his childhood. Born in 1940 in Wrocław as Christoph Ringmann, he never knew his mother. She died giving birth to him. His father Heribert, a musicologist in Wrocław, was killed in a Strafbataillon during the Second World War. After the end of the war, he and his grandmother, who had taken him in, fled to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, but she died in a refugee camp shortly after. His mother's cousin saved the five-year-old Christoph from the typhus-ridden camp and, together with her husband, gave him a new home in Schleswig-Holstein, along with a new surname. It is the pianist Wallydore Eschenbach who sparked the boy’s love for music, who, traumatised from the experiences of war and his escape to Germany, only began to speak after taking up music.

Eschenbach learned to play the piano and quickly proved his talent. A spectacular career as a concert pianist followed. In 1965 he played his first concert with the Bamberg Symphony, Schumann’s Concerto in A minor. The foundation of a unique artistic relationship was laid. He visited Bamberg nine more times as a pianist. However, in reality, he didn’t see himself being a solo pianist at the time. “Actually, I always wanted to conduct, it’s what I had learnt during my studies,” Eschenbach admits, so he used his existing big-name conductor contacts, whom he met as a pianist. He became assistant to George Szell and was taught by Herbert von Karajan. He learned a lot from both, Eschenbach says, “but Szell and Karajan are two completely different sides of the same coin. Szell showed me the meaning of “Klangrede” (music as speech), a term Nikolaus Harnoncourt would later aptly describe in his book. It means how you can make the music tell a story, how you can make the score transparent.” On the other side, we have Karajan the painter, who was able to transform music into an aquarelle. Eschenbach didn’t do the hard slog of going from one opera house to the next. In 1972, he made his debut in Hamburg and soon it got around that Eschenbach could now be invited as a conductor. In 1977, he conducted the Bamberg Symphony for the first time. The programme featured several works by Mozart, which definitely included the Haffner Symphony, Eschenbach remembers. This new collaboration between the old friend in a new role and the Bambergers was an instant success. “The orchestra made it easy for me to realise my musical ideas.” The artistic relationship between Eschenbach, who was concentrating more and more on his work as a conductor, and the Franconian orchestra intensified.

In the following years, Eschenbach built an impressive international conducting career. Engagements in Zurich, Houston, Philadelphia, Paris and Washington followed. His recordings of Bach and Mozart piano concertos with Justus Frantz and the then German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt are legendary. Do we need more politicians who can play Bach today? “It would be wonderful to imagine that every politician listened to Bach for half an hour in the morning. I’m convinced it would change a few decisions.”

The performance with the National Symphony Orchestra in his hometown Wrocław – he had the honour of his name being immortalised in golden letters in the concert hall – is one of those moments especially dear to Eschenbach. Despite his commitments around the world, he always enjoys returning to Bamberg. “I like the close family life with the Bambergers. Maybe because they know both sides: the atmosphere of a small town as well as of the wide world during their many tours,” Eschenbach believes.

     

In their role as Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie (Bavarian State Philharmonic), the Bambergers are an important culture ambassador for Bavaria. As a result, concert tours are a big part of their musical diary, and Eschenbach joins them on tours as well. The journeys have led the orchestra around the world, to France, Japan, North and South America. They performed at the venerable Carnegie Hall as well as the Royal Opera House in Muscat in 2016, at a time when the venue was a tender five years old. “To bring classical music to corners of the world where it’s still being considered exotic is always exciting, and the opera house in Muscat is a wonderful building with very good acoustics.” Although he compares performing at Carnegie Hall to living in a goldfish bowl, Eschenbach still remembers his concert with the Bambergers there. “We played Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a work the New York audience had heard more than once, but the orchestra played phenomenally and with such expression that we had a standing ovation at the end. It was a very special moment.”

Eschenbach learnt the art of conducting at a time when the image of the podium autocrat, reigning with a firm hand, was still dominant. However, his way of working at eye level with the musicians has earned him a lot of respect. “There were moments when I watched Szell that I completely disliked,” Eschenbach remembers. But a lot has changed since then, mainly because unions have helped orchestras to establish a more democratic structure. “Karajan was completely different. He was one of the first not to work in a dictatorial fashion. Besides, conductors have better things to do than to treat musicians like a doormat.”

It is his warm and heartfelt nature that is so appreciated in Bamberg, where Eschenbach was appointed Honorary Conductor in 2016, a position held by Herbert Blomstedt too. To celebrate Eschenbach’s 80th birthday, the Bambergers have programmed a special concert, conducted by the maestro himself. Having Beethoven as the main contributor to this programme is less of an obligation for Eschenbach during the composer’s anniversary year than a matter of the heart. “Beethoven is the most special of all symphonic composers,” Eschenbach says and a certain veneration cuts through his voice. Besides Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the programme features the Flute Concerto by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Contemporary music is very important to Eschenbach and he especially appreciates Penderecki’s music.

It’s no coincidence that there will be a young artist standing next to Eschenbach on the podium, the flautist Stathis Karapanos. “Karapanos is another talent from my pool of young artists,” Eschenbach smiles. Supporting and fostering young talent lies close to his heart, because he himself had benefited from it. “With Szell and Karajan I had two of the best mentors you could wish for. I want to pass that on.” After his birthday concert, conductor and orchestra will take the programme on tour, this time to Warsaw, Krakow and Szczecin.

As to the question which work he would love to perform with the Bamberg Symphony in the future, many possibilities tumble from his tongue. At the moment, he is getting his teeth into Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. “I think I’ve never played Shostakovich with the Bambergers, that would definitely appeal to me. And, something you might not expect, the Bamberg Symphony can do French music really well.” Thus, there is plenty left to do.


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This interview is sponsored by Bamberg Symphony.


Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz.