interview of the month
September 2019

Interview with Konzerthaus Principal Conductor Christoph Eschenbach

The 2019/20 season ushers in a new era at the Konzerthaus Berlin, with Christoph Eschenbach taking up his post as Principal Conductor of the Konzerthaus orchestra. To open the season on 30th August he conducts Gustav Mahler’s powerful Symphony No. 8, dubbed the »Symphony of a Thousand«. On his »Welcome Day« on 1st September there is free admission to watch him conducting a range of pieces that includes Dvorak’s »New World Symphony«. We spoke with Christoph Eschenbach about his plans.

You have been Principal Conductor of a number of highly respected orchestras in Europe and the United States. What prompted you to take up the post at the Gendarmenmarkt at the age of almost 80?

Berlin is a fascinating city – on the strength of its many orchestras alone. People often ask me if that’s a problem for me: well, no, I’ve never been in the slightest put out by it. If anything, it actually pushed me to come here! Last summer I conducted two programmes with the Konzerthaus orchestra centring on Dvorak’s 8th and 9th symphonies. On a personal level and artistically I was very inspired and it was a positive factor in my deliberations over where I wanted to go with the orchestra in the upcoming years. From the word go there was a very nice chemistry between us. I also saw that they were very open to ideas that may have been new to many of them.

As a very young man you met Gustaf Gründgens – from 1934 to 1945 the General Director of the Schauspielhaus Berlin, today’s Konzerthaus. He introduced you to the composer whose work you will be conducting in the opening concert on 30th August.

Gründgens asked me back then if I was familiar with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and I said I was not. He put a record on and said: »You’ve got to conduct this!« Well, that great piece wasn’t the one I started with; first of all, I immersed myself in his entire body of work, and that was how I came to hear the works by Mahler that have become so important to me. His Symphony No. 8 hasn’t been performed much in Berlin – and it’s the piece I want to conduct for the Berlin audience right at the start of my tenure as Principal Conductor of the Konzerthaus orchestra.

A cycle of Brahms symphonies features prominently in your first season at the Konzerthaus. And then there’s the violin concerto with Emmanuel Tjeknavorijan and the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Tzimon Barto. What is it about this composer that interests you?

Johannes Brahms means a lot to me on an emotional level. As a pianist I was always playing his material – his intermezzi, his sonatas and the like. My mother was a singer and through her I got to know his lieder. He didn’t write nearly as many as Schubert or Schumann, but those he did write are lovely and quite revealing. I’ve been involved with the four symphonies since my youth, so I’m very glad to be getting a chance to conduct them right at the start of my tenure.

You’ve got a cycle of Shostakovich symphonies planned for future seasons with the Konzerthaus orchestra. His Symphony No. 5 is even scheduled for October.

Bear in mind that one of my predecessors at the Konzerthaus Berlin was Kurt Sanderling, the great conductor of Shostakovich. (…) I’m raring to get started with this orchestra, what with the Shostakovich baton being handed on from generation to generation through its DNA. Shortly before his death, the composer slowed down the tempo of the coda in the last movement of his Fifth Symphony, reining in the exultation and ratcheting up the tragic, painful quality. That’s the version we’ll be playing. I find it very moving.

Any special recommendations for the upcoming season?

My »Schlusselwerke« series. It’s a very personal collection of pieces. The works are very close to my heart and they’re being performed by people who I know share my vision of the works. The series is aimed at a small but very interested audience, and me talking about my preferred works and preferred artists will make for quite an intimate atmosphere.

Interview: Annette Zerpner