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Star conductor Eschenbach shares secrets to happiness
In war-struck Germany, it was music that gave the child Christoph Eschenbach a fresh start in life. Turning 75 on February 20, the world-renowned conductor says music keeps him from aging.
Christoph Eschenbach is in the news again. He will soon be receiving the Ernst von Siemens music award for his life's work, one year after receiving a Grammy. He is the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. And now on February 20 he is celebrating a milestone birthday: 75.
Eschenbach has already found the key to success and happiness: continually searching for new experiences and filling every day with music, he tells DW.
"Every day is the day. Routine is a horrible word. It shouldn't exist for anyone. I preach that practically like a priest," explained the conductor. And this life approach seems to be working for Eschenbach. He is in great health and high spirits.
Although Eschenbach is currently one of the world's most famous living conductors, he stays modest and down-to-earth. He doesn't think about his fame, he says. He just keeps working and follows the motto: He who searches, will find.
"And I always find," sums up Eschenbach.
But it is not beauty that he is looking for. "Music goes way beyond beauty. There is also the opposite of beauty: aggression. [Igor Stravinsky's] 'Sacre du Printemps' is not about beauty. It's about nature's strength and also violence. And music incorporates all these things."
Eschenbach doesn't think much about age, but just carries on doing what he loves: making music and inspiring people. "Every step is an important step, as long as it's a step forward, and as long as it's to discover new worlds. And I'm very lucky that I'm able to always discover new worlds and don't stagnate. I can't imagine one day having to stop making music and stop stimulating music in others."
'Home is in me'
Eschenbach says he loves many things about Washington, DC - the size of the city, the cherry blossoms in the spring, its cosmopolitan nature. "It's the capital, but it's not boastful," he says.
However, he doesn't feel bound to one place or one nationality. Though he was born in Germany, he has lived in many different European and American cities over the course of his career, holding positions at the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra de Paris, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
"I often get asked where home is," says Eschenbach. "But home is in me, in my soul."
As the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra since 2010, Eschenbach has brought fresh energy and a European touch to the US capital's musical landscape. And the city loves him back.
With his small frame and friendly brown eyes, he is rather mellow and unobtrusive off-stage. But once he takes up the baton, his passion and enthusiasm emerge.
"He gets into the music very much and sometimes we fear that he'll actually fall off the back of the podium," laughs Robert Oppelt, principal bassist with the National Symphony Orchestra. "Christoph, more than most conductors, gives his heart and soul to the music. It's never ever superficial, but dedicated and sincere."
'The stage is my world'
He who searches, will find, says Eschenbach
Eschenbach has the orchestra under control. During slower moments, he conducts solely with his eyebrows or with a nod, but when the music swells he jumps in the air and uses his whole body for expression.
"I save up my energy for the stage; one can't be dramatic all the time," laughs Eschenbach. "The stage is my world. This is where I pull musicians into my field of interpretation. It has to burn in me and in them. And it does."
Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra have a relationship of mutual appreciation. After rehearsals, the maestro likes to check in with the musicians. "There's never any hesitation to go up to him and ask something about the music, find out what's going on in his life and vice versa," says Oppelt.
The members of the orchestra appreciate Eschenbach's friendliness, passion and attention to detail. "His music is so flexible and expressive," says assistant principal hornist Laurel Bennert Ohlson. "Every time going through a piece is a little bit different, so we have to be on our toes, wide awake, and be ready for little nuances."
Music as a life saver
Music saved Eschenbach as a child in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland). When World War II made him an orphan - his mother died in childbirth and his father, who opposed the Nazis, was sent off in a punishment battalion, he stopped speaking for a year.
"I was consumed by horrific images that sealed my mouth shut," he recalls. His stepmother sang and played instruments. "I immediately recognized music as the means of expression that I needed. I plunged into it, and I was suddenly happy, I could breathe again and I could talk again. The world looked completely different."

Eschenbach was six years old at the time. "That's what music should do. Without the barrier of letters, it should speak and fulfil all people. That phenomenon is new again every day, and that's why one doesn't actually age."


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