The Maestro as Mentor

Classic Arts Features   The Maestro as Mentor
Philadelphia Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach guides a new generation.

It is safe to say that most great musical artists can look back to their formative years and acknowledge the far-reaching influence of someone who was a mentor, a person The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines as "a wise and trusted counselor or teacher."

Christoph Eschenbach, whose work with gifted young musicians is one of his greatest gifts, is the mentor par excellence, and he is adamant about the importance of such guidance. "You take an interest in young people who are enormously talented, not only musically but also artistically," he says. "This includes purely technical aspects, even though the technical side is already there. You also talk to them about the music business. You help them learn to deal with reviews. They need support to strengthen their self-esteem and to not be affected by the tendency to conform."

As for his own mentors, Eschenbach recalls: "As a young pianist, making a recording with Herbert von Karajan spoke for itself ... he didn't need to help any further! But George Szell spoke about me everywhere, and this was enormously helpful." In fact, having been a student of Szell while Szell was still music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Eschenbach is the invaluable historic link between that great conductor and the young musicians with whom he works today, who only know Szell from recordings.

The other main aspect of Eschenbach's value as a mentor, observes Kathleen van Bergen, the Orchestra's vice president for artistic planning, is his knack for "inspiring people to make a personal statement. He gives them confidence and the freedom to create the musical architecture their own way. For me, it's a real comfort to work with him. His philosophy about young artists infiltrates our long-term planning‹that support for them is a part of The Philadelphia Orchestra's mission."

Thanks to Eschenbach and the Orchestra, Philadelphia is one of five cities (along with Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, and Los Angeles) that have been chosen by the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) for its Conducting Fellows program, in which an orchestra and its music director make a three-year commitment to a young conductor: The Orchestra's fellow is Shizuo Kuwahara. The crux of the program is, in fact, mentoring.

When the League's committee was making its selections, says ASOL Vice President and Chief Program Officer Jesse Rosen, it was looking for orchestras with "a very strong commitment from the music director‹which was crucial‹and from the orchestra musicians, as well as someone in the administration who had the authority to bring all the components together. We knew of Eschenbach's long-standing commitment to young musicians. And, at the time, Simon Woods was the vice president of artistic planning and operations for The Philadelphia Orchestra and was very, very devoted to creating the conducting fellow position." Van Bergen, who is equally dedicated to the program, has continued where Woods left off.

As part of the program, ASOL offered what Rosen describes as a "two-day master class" at the Kimmel Center this past September, once all of the Fellows had been chosen. Four young conductors, including Kuwahara, met with Eschenbach and ASOL representatives to discuss their goals and what they hoped to get out of the experience. Each one conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra for a half hour, observed by Eschenbach, who then met with them in his studio. In addition, five Orchestra members were chosen to be "designated mentors," giving feedback to all of the Fellows.

"Eschenbach has an uncanny ability," Rosen observes, "to identify in each conductor the one or two fundamental things to work on to make a big difference, focusing on what will unlock and solve other problems. In his meetings with them, he seemed to have recorded mentally what each one had done, measure for measure. And his comments were imaginative and vivid. At one point he did a Kabuki gesture and movement across the room, to show how to keep the musical line moving forward. And this was all done with very few words, understated, while at the same time showing great empathy and compassion‹he's been there himself."

"We must take more time for promising young conductors," Eschenbach insists. "The famous conductors have no time for teaching, so I try to persuade my colleagues to find time."

Conductors, however, aren't the only beneficiaries of Eschenbach's teaching. A pianist as well as a conductor, the Maestro studied violin for 15 years and sat in on his foster mother's voice lessons as a child and teenager. As a result, he is equally comfortable and successful serving as a mentor to instrumentalists and singers. He especially enjoys working with musicians who have strong individual personalities and independent ideas, such as pianists Tzimon Barto and Lang Lang; violinists Gil Shaham, Julia Fischer, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg; and soprano Renée Fleming.

One of Eschenbach's more recent discoveries, the young cellist Dimitri Maslennikov, is making his Philadelphia Orchestra debut with him this month. The conductor first heard Maslennikov in Paris three years ago. "I observed him, gave him some advice, and followed his development," he explains, "as I do with all such young musicians until they reach the point where they are mature enough that I can work with them. He is now at that point. His career is really starting to take off."

Eschenbach's first "mentoree" was the then 23-year-old Barto. "I didn't have much to tell him, because he knew everything," Eschenbach says. "I nearly fell over! I ended up learning a great deal from him, especially about sound possibilities. He was with Adele Marcus at Juilliard for four years, and, through her, he developed his vast sound palette. He went from there to the Spoleto Festival in Italy, and didn't want to go back to America, so I helped him with some engagements. He had a huge success, and from then on, his career has progressed on its own to where he is performing all around the world."

Fleming has said that Eschenbach was the conductor who most influenced her as an artist and in her career. She recently added: "Early in my career I had the luxury of working with him‹a master musician‹on the repertoire of Mozart and Strauss that was to become my cornerstone. And in the spirit of warm collaboration, I began to believe in myself and blossom."

Eschenbach remembers when Fleming jumped in for a colleague to sing the Countess in Houston Grand Opera's Marriage of Figaro in 1988. "She was obviously something very special," he says. "Not only her voice, but also her artistry. She only knew the two big arias really well, so we worked on the whole role, and from then on we worked on others, such as Arabella, the Marschallin, and her only Elvira, in 1991. We did the Missa solemnis and Lieder, and we've made several recordings. She and Tzimon are the ones I've known the longest. What they both have achieved has lived up to the promise they showed when I first met them.

"Lang Lang calls me every couple of months and asks, 'When can I see you?'" Eschenbach continues. "So we work for five hours, as we did in November and December‹'Goldberg' Variations, Liszt, all works that I know, and it's great, great fun."

Ask Lang Lang about Eschenbach, and he can talk for 20 minutes without repeating himself: "He is truly special, the most sincere musician I have ever known: Everything just flows from the heart," says the pianist. "To have a mentor like this is really important for my life. I've been working with him since 1999, and he made me like his son. Normally, in a lesson, five hours seem so long, but with him, it flies. And his knowledge! We just worked on the 'Goldberg' Variations: how to phrase, how to make the repeats interesting, how to show a complete picture. He also has a beautiful sound and touch, and so many colors. When I play soft now, I've been inspired‹he has taught me how to play soft! Everything I'm playing, I want to play for him. We talk about my life, my career. Then he says, 'Let's play some new stuff.' I'm working hard to improve my artistry for him: I'd better do well, so I don't waste the Maestro's time!"

Eschenbach and Salerno-Sonnenberg are enthusiastic about how effectively they work together as well. But they admit that it is not truly a case of mentoring since she was already ensconced in her career when they met. "He hasn't been so much a mentor to me as a soul mate!" she exclaims. She recalls that when they first worked together, she was relieved that he was open to her ideas. "That's like opening Pandora's box when you're working with me! There's such amazing freedom!" The admiration is mutual. "When she plays even the most standard piece," says Eschenbach, "you know that you are going to hear something new, seen from many sides."

Being a mentor, Eschenbach says, is "quite a lot of work, but I invest the time gladly for young artists. It gives so much pleasure and joy! To hear these young people who at 20 play so marvelously is a truly wonderful experience!"

Van Bergen adds: "It amazes me how selfless he is! What a gift he brings to the future!"

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