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Entries in Christoph Eschenbach (1)

Thursday
Dec082011

Return of the Maestro

Even seconds before Eschenbach walked on stage I could feel something different in the air. The audience’s anticipation was palpable, and when he finally stepped out people were already beginning to stand, applaud, cheer. The beloved maestro who had spent over a decade melding the Houston Symphony into a world-class orchestra had returned after nearly ten years for one night only, to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. He humbly and silently accepted all of this adulation before turning towards the orchestra and subtly signaling the lead trumpet to begin.

From those first staccato notes the entire performance was electrifying. Every nuance and subtle turn of Mahler’s masterpiece was carefully brought out by both conductor and musicians. Though I had heard that rehearsal time was short, everyone in the orchestra played their absolute best. The strings were more sublime than ever, woodwinds and percussion surpassed their usual high standards, and the brass, which has unfortunately been noticeably sloppy in a few of this season’s performances, played with utmost precision and beautiful, clean tone.

Through the turbulent second movement, the almost upbeat scherzo, and the heartbreakingly beautiful adagio, the audience sat with rapt attention, hardly daring to breathe. I don’t remember a single cough the entire performance, which is unheard-of (and I suppose may simply reflect the spell the music cast on me). During the latter, time almost seemed to stand still for Mahler’s musical love letter to his beloved Alma. Later, as the finale hurtled to its thrilling conclusion I could feel the energy in the room all around me, which finally burst out in a roaring cheer from the crowd as Eschenbach lowered his baton after the final crescendo.

Practically the entire audience was back on its feet again as whistles, hoots, hollers, and loud cries of “Bravo!” filled the air. The loud applause never faltered as the maestro came out for five curtain calls. He seemed grateful yet still somewhat reserved at all this outpouring. He graciously singled out all of the members of the orchestra who had done particularly well in their solos, and repeatedly gestured for the orchestra to rise up and take a well-deserved bow.

On the fifth curtain call, however, the orchestra did something I have never seen before: silent agreement passed between them and they refused to rise. Eschenbach gestured again for them to stand; for a moment he did not understand why just this once they neglected to follow his direction. But by then the musicians themselves were joining the audience in applauding him, even stomping feet on the stage in their appreciation. And now from my fifth row seat I could see some of Eschenbach’s deep emotion break though his professional surface. It was evident just how moved he was at this gesture, and he turned his back on the audience to bow to the musicians of the orchestra, some of whom were no doubt old friends. Then, with one final grateful nod to the crowd, he was gone.

Though I witnessed several great performances by the symphony during the 2005-2006 season when I worked for them, and was more recently wowed by the Symphony under Mark Wigglesworth this past year, this concert was probably their greatest in years. I confess it may not have been a perfect performance, but it was truly a great one. Under Eschenbach’s direction, the Houston Symphony truly lived up to its potential as a world-class orchestra and it was a wonder to behold.

Your friend in music,

Yavar