Can the Band Play On?

The Houston Symphony opens its new season without a music director, an executive director or a clear vision for the future. Only one thing appears certain: The post-Eschenbach era is going to look a lot different.

In August, the Houston Symphony returned to the cradle of classical music for a weeklong series of concerts in four different European cities and three separate music festivals. For the quick jaunt, the orchestra was joined by its former music director and current conductor laureate, Christoph Eschenbach, in what appeared to be the final hurrah between the two before the symphony cuts the umbilical cord and picks a new music director this fall. The tour, with stopovers at the Rheingau Musik Festival in Wiesbaden, the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in Hamburg and the Lucerne International Festival in Switzerland, was a chance for the musicians and patrons, including new board president Rodney H. Margolis, to revel in the symphony's lofty status among American orchestras, a position attained mostly through the baton of the man standing on the podium for these concerts. At Lucerne's new concert hall, the Culture and Congress Center, a picturesque and acoustically pristine venue that is surrounded by water on one side and mountains on the other, the Houston Symphony charged the Swiss audience with repertory favorites that, according to the orchestra's Web site, left the crowd asking for more. The musicians responded with two encores.

Just days after the triumph of the American South on European soil, the Houston Symphony, sans Eschenbach, returned to its home turf to greet the city's hoi polloi at the aging Jones Hall for the annual Theater District Open House. The open house, in true American fashion, was a less-than-subtle, sometimes ostentatious attempt to attract new subscribers to a form of entertainment that many of them wouldn't touch with a ten-foot baton. Outside Jones Hall, a timpani-costumed barker tried to lure passersby into the marketing-driven event. It seemed like an all too apt metaphor for an orchestra with major artistic aspirations, but without a music director or an executive director. The Houston Symphony, as it opens its 2000-2001 season, may be considered world-class by classical fans across the Atlantic, but back home, the musicians are still just a bunch of longhairs with an identity crisis and an undefined direction, a group in desperate need of publicity stunts to prove itself to its own community.

Former executive director Wax: "I think [Houston has] done well, but we are not on the cutting edge of the arts."
Former executive director Wax: "I think [Houston has] done well, but we are not on the cutting edge of the arts."

Since its inception in 1913, the Houston Symphony Society has existed at the expense, and for the pleasure, of the wealthy. From Ima Hogg through Hugh Roy Cullen, the main responsibility of the board of directors was that of check writing. It simply didn't matter if the orchestra made money or was supported by the city; someone could always be counted on to make up the difference at the end of the year. In 1940 Jesse H. Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, through their charitable Houston Endowment, contributed $250 to the symphony, the first of many ever-increasing gifts the fund would award the organization. Ten years later they funded the first broadcasts of the symphony on KTRH-AM to make the music available to all Houstonians. It was the first time someone realized the "Houston" in Houston Symphony meant more than just the donors.

During the early days of big giving and big galas, the baton was held by many luminaries, from Leopold Stokowski to Sir John Barbirolli and even André Previn, whose open-living arrangement with Mia Farrow prior to his divorce apparently did not sit well with the local bluehairs. Nationally, in the 1970s, the musicians unions and their demands began to grow in number, while pop culture kept younger audiences entranced with rock and soul, precipitating a downhill trend for what many already considered to be a dying Eurocentric art form. By the oil bust of the 1980s, the Houston Symphony was in a serious downward spiral. For both board members and donors, there were more exciting, hipper organizations: the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet. As financing dwindled, the symphony was forced to slash salaries and cancel tours, recordings and renovations to its home at Jones Hall. In the final seasons under music director Sergiu Comissiona, the orchestra itself seemed to lose interest in it all, as did audiences.

And then came Christoph Eschenbach.

A self-described "monk of music," with black-on-black attire and collarless suits, Eschenbach programmed the seasons, chose the repertory, auditioned players, cajoled the board members and schmoozed donors. He made the orchestra play up to its potential, and he made the world recognize just what that potential was. He demanded perfection, or as near to it as the musicians could play; he also insisted on recordings and European tours, two costly ventures that he thought were necessary for the experience and morale of the players, as well as the profile of the organization.

"The orchestra zoomed up in the 11 years that Eschenbach was here," says David Wax, crossing his legs and causing the tiny tassels of a well-worn pair of brown loafers to bounce.

Wax, with his silver beard and expensive shirt, looks as though he could be a slightly eccentric CEO or the arts administrator that he was. As of September 1, he officially left his post as executive director of the Houston Symphony, a position he had held since 1987, or 1 B.E., "before Eschenbach." In March of this year, the symphony released a short statement saying that Wax was resigning "to move on to new challenges." More than five months later, Wax is not sure where those challenges lie for the long term, but has for now accepted a position as interim executive director for the San Antonio Symphony, whose chief unexpectedly resigned.

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