Christoph Eschenbach's life turned around when he was introduced to music. Henning Bagger/Getty hide caption

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Christoph Eschenbach's life turned around when he was introduced to music.

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Classics in Concert

Christoph Eschenbach Conducts The L.A. PhilharmonicAmerican Public Media

Christoph Eschenbach Conducts The L.A. Philharmonic

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I can't imagine what must go through Christoph Eschenbach's head when he conducts. Of course, there's the music at hand — and, of course, the not-small task of keeping the 100 orchestral players in front of him all together to create something memorable for a paying audience.

But for all his fame today as a world-class conductor, and as an acclaimed pianist before that, Eschenbach had a most horrific beginning. He was born in the thick of WWII in Germany, and lost both parents before he was 5. He writes in his memoirs:

"Disease and death were my constant companions; I was released from the first five dark years of my childhood by my mother's cousin. It was during the ensuing long year of my convalescence, a time in which my harrowing past robbed me of my power to speak, that I heard music for the first time. My new father, a pianist, singer and music teacher, played Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Bach until the late hours of the night. My power of speech returned with the word 'yes' when asked if I wanted to play music myself."

Do these memories, those awful scenes now some 65 years past, ever come to mind as he conducts? There's something so touching, yet full of the joy of life, in these two Dvorak pieces (Carnival Overture and the 9th Symphony) he performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These make me think that the sorrow he experienced, and the ecstasy when he discovered music, are still with him every time he picks up a baton today.

About The Music

Dvorak: Carnival Overture:

"What the composer hath joined together, let no publisher put asunder." That could've been Dvorak's credo when it came to a set of three concert overtures he wrote in the early 1890s. Dvorak saw them as a three-paneled unit and wanted to call them "Nature," "Life" and "Love." But his publisher saw things differently, and brought them out separately and with new titles: "In Nature's Realm," "Carnival" and "Othello." These days, orchestras rarely play all three together. But when "Carnival" received its premiere, its companion overtures were also performed. The occasion was Dvorak's farewell concert, in April 1892, just before he set sail to the U.S. The music begins and ends in a whirl of melody, with a more pensive section (signaled by the French horn) in the middle.

Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 1

"All the birds pay tribute to me / for today I wed a goddess / And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom / in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear / burning in amorous conflagration." This poem by the Polish poet Tadeusz Micinski was the likely inspiration for Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1, composed in 1916. As one of the first modern violin concertos, the piece straddles a line between 20th-century music, with its challenging tonality, and the romantic era, with its sweeping passion. Highly influenced by Polish folk music, Szymanowski accompanies the violin solo with frantic and swirling dissonances as it soars higher and higher into its upper register, searching for resolution.

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9, From The New World

The story behind Dvorak's New World symphony is well known — in 1892, the popular Czech composer was asked to come to America to head the newly established National Conservatory of Music in New York City. While here, Dvorak became captivated by Native American music and African-American spirituals, believing them to be a foundation upon which American composers could build a serious and original school of composition. But although the New World symphony is steeped in Dvorak's interpretation of American folk melodies, sounds from his native Bohemia also make a salient appearance. While depicting the inspiring sights and sounds he discovered in America, Dvorak's longing for his homeland was just below the surface.

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