Christoph Eschenbach overcame the most difficult of circumstances to become one of the finest pianists and conductors of the late 20th century. He was orphaned at a young age: his mother died in childbirth and his father, musicologist Heribert Ringmann, was killed in battle during World War II. His adoptive grandmother was then killed while trying to extract him and herself from the path of the Allied armies. Fortunately for the young boy, his mother’s cousin, Wallydore Eschenbach, tracked him down after the war and adopted him from the refugee camp that would likely have claimed his life. It is from her side of the family that he eventually took his better-known surname.
Eschenbach began studying piano at the age of eight, taught by his adoptive mother. She quickly realized his talents and enrolled him in the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik, where he studied both piano and conducting. As a boy he won First Prize in the 1952 Steinway Piano Competition, and in 1962 he took second prize in the Munich International competition; however, it was with his first prize at the Clara Haskil Competition in Montreux, France, in 1965, that he finally made his mark. This new notoriety led to a London concert debut in 1966, and a prestigious debut with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell in 1969. Szell was impressed with his musicianship and gave him lessons in conducting, starting a close relationship that lasted until Szell’s death in 1970.
Eschenbach was soon essaying a wide repertory in concert tours throughout Europe and America. Notable in his programs were a large number of works from 20th century composers, such as Bartók, Henze, Rihm, Reimann, Blacher, and Ruzicka; however, his performances of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert were considered revelatory.
Eschenbach made his conducting debut in 1972 with a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, soon followed by Verdi’s La Traviata at Darmstadt in 1978. In 1979 he was named general music director of the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic (through 1981). He was permanent guest conductor, then chief conductor, of the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra (1971-1985).
In 1988 he began his most significant and productive association to date as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 1999. Although the orchestra was already established as one of America’s finer major symphonies, Eschenbach improved its standards, heightened its international reputation, and broadened its repertory. He also formed the Houston Symphony Chamber Players from its ranks. Eschenbach conducted the Houston Symphony in recordings on the Koch International, Virgin, RCA Red Seal, Telarc, and Carlton labels. These included standard fare such as some highly regarded Brahms and Tchaikovsky recordings and all of the major Mozart wind concertos (with the orchestra’s own soloists). He and the Houston Symphony also recorded Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny suite, Tobias Picker’s Las Encantadoras, and the violin concertos of John Adams and Philip Glass.
Elgar & Schnittke: Viola Concertos From 1991 to 1998 he was co-artistic director of the Pacific Music Festival, along with Michael Tilson Thomas. In 1994 Eschenbach was appointed music director of the Ravinia Festival, the summer outdoor season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the 1998-1999 season he became music director of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg, and, concurrently, artistic director of its Schleswig-Holstein Festival. In 2003, he became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he continued to guest conduct from 2007-2010. Eschenbach spent the 2010-2011 season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Discs on which he conducts include Elgar & Schnittke: Viola Concertos (2009), The Best of Lang Lang (2010), and Remembering JFK – 50th Anniversary Concert (2011).