The 19th century had its Liszts and Mendelssohns, but of the notable conductors of this century, almost none has dared to pursue a parallel career as a soloist. Toscanini, FurtwŠngler, and Bruno Walter confined their time and energy entirely to the podium; while Szell, Bernstein, and Solti were ace pianists, they performed infrequently in public, and even then mostly in chamber settings. In the last couple decades, though, we’ve seen a new wave of conductor hyphenates. Pinchas Zukerman, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and James Levine readily come to mind–not to mention Placido Domingo. By chance, perhaps, the CSO is blessed (or cursed, according to some of its members) with not one but two music directors who established themselves early as piano virtuosi and still keep hectic performance schedules: Daniel Barenboim at Orchestra Hall and Christoph Eschenbach at Ravinia. Eschenbach, in my opinion, is ahead of the whole pack in the juggling act. Already a prominent pianist in his native Germany, where he first garnered attention as a prodigy from Hamburg, Eschenbach spent much of the late 60s as an apprentice to Szell, who had by then made over the Cleveland Orchestra in his own image. The training molded him into an exacting but broad-minded musician; it came in handy when he, like Szell, found himself in charge of rebuilding an orchestra (the Houston Symphony) from the bottom up. As a pianist, especially in the core repertoire, Eschenbach emphasizes clarity and thoughtfulness–no frilly turns of phrase or sentimental goo. And though he’s still plagued by rather erratic baton technique, he’s learned to coax consistent, invigorating (though at times overly flamboyant) performances from the CSO. This weekend he’ll show both faces: on Friday he solos in Beethoven’s Concerto no. 1, then shepherds the CSO through Brahms’s Fourth Symphony; Saturday he oversees a similar program that couples a great concerto (Mozart’s no. 21, with the estimable pianist Peter Serkin) with a great symphony (Schubert’s Ninth). Eschenbach will also perform Monday with the Takacs Quartet, Wednesday as part of a Schubert-Brahms Marathon, and Thursday with the Chicago Chamber Musicians, all at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre. Friday, Saturday, Monday, and Thursday, July 31, 8 PM, and Wednesday, 7 PM, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. TED SHEN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.