With over 80 recordings, and after four decades of conducting some of the finest orchestras in the world, Christoph Eschenbach shares memories about his mentors, Bernstein and Szell, and talks about his ability to influence the careers of young aspiring musicians in a scene largely dominated by artist agencies.
Maestro, the list of protégées which you have discovered is long and glamorous – so many famous people where exposed to the audience through your attention. How do you perceive your role in today’s music scene?
I had two role models in that sense: Karajan and George Szell. Actually in those days having a mentor, or playing the mentor as a conductor, wasn’t at all that common. Especially George Szell, with whom I was fortunate to work through all the piano concertos in my repertoire. He gave me so much of his time and I received from him unbelievably valuable advice. He was very firm and strict, not in character, but in what he demanded from the musicians. So was Karajan, in his own different way. Therefore it was through the experiences and lessons which I have absorbed from the older generation of great artists, that I have learnt, that this is simply something one has to do. I have learnt that one must pass on the knowledge and experience accumulated during a life long career, and that I do.
You have mentioned two of your mentors – Karajan and Szell. What was Bernstein’s role in your musical life?
Well, interestingly enough, I have never really worked with Bernstein. I have never played with him, but we had many conversations and spoke about numerous subjects. Of course these conversations were extremely fruitful and gave me much food for thought.
This year would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday. Do you recon that the young listeners he reached through his work with youth audiences are still influenced by him?
Back then, when the orchestra academy at Schleswig-Holstein was founded, Bernstein was one of the first one to come two-three years in a row. He gave master classes as well as conducted the orchestra himself – a gathering of musicians from 25-30 different nations! That had a deep influence on me as well as on others, and I do not believe such a deep impact can cease to exist.
Can you recall concrete memories from Bernstein? Specific musical advice or particular influential experiences?
Well of course I can recall specific performances which had a huge impact on me, for example in Tanglewood Music Festival, where he taught, but was also a student himself. One of his most prominent teachers there was Hindemith, at the end of the 30s. I was there in the 70s and saw him often teaching and conducting, as well as working with Tanglewood’s youth orchestra. Of course I also saw him conduct works such as Mahler 9th and 5th, as well as Beethoven. Phenomenal performances which I could never forget. His Schumann symphonies! He was one of the very few who could conduct all four of them with an equal level of love and appreciation.
Yes he was a very intense musician. Is it it possible to teach this kind of intensity?
No, of course intensity is not something you can train, but rather a force resulting from music itself. Though naturally if you see someone like Bernstein, who truly had the energy and charisma of a volcano; or take for example Furtwängler, whom I also experienced live – when one experiences this kind of intensity one is bound to be deeply inspired.
How did the collaboration between you and the Kronberg Academy came to be?
Raimund Trenkler [founder and president of Kronberg Academy] asked me a couple of years ago to join. Actually I didn’t have enough time but of course I was very interested in the whole project, and as I came to work with the students for the first time, perhaps six or seven years ago, I was astonished with the level of musicianship and overall from what is happening there. The world is there – in this tiny village! It is phenomenal what these young musicians are capable of. First class soloists!
As one of the most prominent conductors of our times and being so deeply integrated in the classical music world, to what extent do you have influence over the careers of young aspiring soloist, such as the students in Kronberg? Are you able, for example, to pave a musician’s way into the major concert series? How much of the decision making behind screens is done by the artist agencies?
The agencies are, in fact, a great obstacle, and so are concert organisers. In a way, the orchestras themselves present limitations. I am so incredibly happy here with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, where I feel that our work together is truly engaged with my idea – allowing the young soloists from Kronberg to actually perform with the orchestra, and not settle for good coaching only. This kind of de facto integration of tomorrow’s first class musicians is priceless. But it isn’t always the case. The organisers of major concert series in particular, are not interested in presenting new names, fantastic musicians as they may be. The agencies normally don’t behave much differently. They often refuse taking new artists on the account that young musicians require more work and might sell less. Agents often complain having too many artist and not enough time for new comers. I strongly disagree with such attitude and I find myself fighting against it time and again. It feels like a lost battle, I must say, but I don’t intend to give up.
Looking back to the long way you have had as an artist, what do you believe to be more important: to find yourself, or to create yourself?
That is a beautiful question. Both. First you need to find yourself, then you need to create yourself.