SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Washington D.C.'s National Symphony Orchestra has a new conductor. He's being welcomed, well, like a rock star. Dark, piercing eyes and shaved head are splashed across the sides of city buses and on billboards around town. Some of the classical music world's biggest names performed at his opening night concert last weekend. He is 70-year-old Christoph Eschenbach. He's been called both brilliant and erratic, never bland.

Brigid McCarthy has this profile.

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BRIGID MCCARTHY: Christoph Eschenbach's debut as Washington's new music director was as much a celebration as a performance. The stage was festooned with enormous vases of white flowers. Some of the women in the orchestra were wearing brightly colored ball gowns, instead of the usual black attire. It almost felt like a wedding. No wonder. Christoph Eschenbach says a conductor's relationship with the orchestra is a bit like a marriage.

CHRISTOPH ESCHENBACH: I'm in this marriage with 100 people.

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MCCARTHY: Eschenbach's previous marriage, to the famed Philadelphia Orchestra, was a stormy one and lasted only five years. When his contract expired in 2008, management chose not to renew it. Some of the musicians there complained about his overly dramatic interpretations and unpredictability. That didn't seem to bother the National Symphony Orchestra though, which was looking for a new music director.

Marissa Regni is the principal second violinist with the NSO, and a co-chair of the search committee. She says choosing a conductor is always a huge leap of faith.

MARISSA REGNI: We are 100 completely different individuals. What might not have been the best fit somewhere does not in any way mean it's not going to be great for us.

MCCARTHY: Eschenbach says he may be the boss, but he has to play many roles - father, diplomat and psychologist.

ESCHENBACH: It's not only that the conductor beats on a gray mass of people, but it's a human organism of artists, and these artists have also to say something.

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MCCARTHY: Up on the podium, Eschenbach is anything but flamboyant. He slices the air with small, sharp gestures. What the audience can't always see is his face. Principal second violinist Marissa Regni.

REGNI: He has a very intense gaze about him, and it sort of at first, I think, sets you back a little, you know, the gaze, the eyes.

ESCHENBACH: Through eye comes very much of what you want to say.

MCCARTHY: In fact, he's famous for conducting Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" just with his eyes.

Christoph Eschenbach is also famous for noticing and nurturing new talent.

LANG LANG: He's my second father.

MCCARTHY: Eschenbach, himself a world class concert pianist, spotted the Chinese prodigy Lang Lang at an audition in Chicago ll years ago. The pianist was just 17 and not well known outside of Asia.

LANG: So that was my - absolutely the lucky break.

MCCARTHY: Lang Lang says Eschenbach has been a friend and mentor ever since.

LANG: I changed a lot, I mean through working with him. You know, I got inspired a lot, and I create a totally different sound.

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MCCARTHY: Both Lang Lang, and another Eschenbach protégé, soprano Renee Fleming, performed at his opening night concert last Saturday. Renee Fleming says there are basically two kinds of conductors.

RENEE FLEMING: They're either extremely self absorbed, and also, you know, to be fair, busy, or they are willing to take the time and work - in his case he works with young conductors, he works with young musicians, he'll hire them, and bring them back and help them explore repertoire. He's very generous that way.

MCCARTHY: Eschenbach says he's just doing what his own mentors, the legendary conductors Herbert von Karajan and George Szell, did for him when he was starting out. Still, his path to a musical career was not an easy one. Christoph Eschenbach was born in Nazi Germany, in l940. His mother died giving birth to him. His father was a musicologist and an outspoken opponent of the regime, who perished in one of Hitler's punishment battalions during World War II. After the war, his mother's cousin found young Eschenbach alone, in a refugee camp. He was ill with typhus and lice ridden. And mute.

ESCHENBACH: Because I was so full of bad and terrible impressions, that I was silent for years. So I couldn't speak anymore, I was closed.

MCCARTHY: The relative who'd found him in the refugee camp, Wallydore Eschenbach, was a piano teacher. And at night she'd play Beethoven and Schumann and Chopin, as little Christoph was drifting off to sleep. One day she asked him if he'd like to learn the piano. He spoke his first word: yes.

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ESCHENBACH: The music gave me the key to open the door of expression, to express myself, and to free myself.

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MCCARTHY: Eschenbach believes music can do a lot, both for those who play, and those who listen.

ESCHENBACH: Music can invade you totally, and can speak all the languages of emotion to you. And therefore you can express all the language of emotion with that music.

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MCCARTHY: In spite of his accomplishments at the piano, Christoph Eschenbach was drawn to conducting because he didn't want to spend so much time alone at the keyboard. He wanted to have a musical dialogue, a conversation - one in which the notes convey the full range of human experiences.

For NPR News, I'm Brigid McCarthy in Washington.

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SIMON: You can hear Christoph Eschenbach conduct Brahms and Bartok and read an essay about the new music director on our new classical blog, Deceptive Cadence, all at nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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