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Healed by music.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Music, you might say, saved Christoph Eschenbach's life.

It certainly was a life that started badly. Eschenbach's mother died giving birth to him in Germany in 1940. His father, a music professor, was forced into a punishment battalion by the Nazis and was soon killed in action. His grandmother took the orphaned boy in hand, but she, too, died as a refugee in 1945.

By then Christoph had completely given up talking.

In early 1946 he was rescued by his mother's cousin, a pianist and singer named Wallydore Eschenbach, who later adopted him. In her household he once again heard music - Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Bach - late into the night. His new mom finally asked the stricken child if he wanted to learn to play music himself.

"My power of speech returned with the word `yes,' ' he says.

This is the kind of epic story that's difficult to fit into a typical 15-minute celebrity telephone interview.

And, yes, Eschenbach is a celebrity. He's the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the world's great symphony orchestras, which is coming here to play a single concert at the Hult Center Sunday evening.

It will be the orchestra's only Oregon appearance on its current tour.

On the phone, Eschenbach said he has always been grateful to music for re-opening his life. "It was painful," he said of that childhood silence. "It was very, very painful. And music took that pain away."

Eschenbach became a conductor after a successful career as a concert pianist.

"I thought it was so interesting to inspire and animate 100 musicians to play this incredible phonic repertoire, and to inspire other musicians, not only myself," he said. "I thought that was the most interesting way of making music, instead of sitting alone in front of the big instrument like the piano."

Eschenbach's tenure with Philadelphia is coming to an end. Last fall he announced he would leave the orchestra at the end of the 2007-08 season.

He declined to discuss reasons for his departure. According to news reports, many orchestra musicians were opposed to his hiring when he came aboard in 2003, and he has lacked chemistry with the players. He has also been music director of Orchestre de Paris since 2000.

Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra has a long tradition of technological firsts with its music. It made the first electrical recording of a symphony orchestra, in 1925. It was the first orchestra to play on national television.

It was the Philadelphia Orchestra that recorded the sound track to Disney's groundbreaking animation "Fantasia" in 1940. It was the Philadelphia Orchestra that toured China in 1973, becoming the first Western symphony to perform there after Richard Nixon thawed Cold War relations with the communist country.

The orchestra continues that forward-leaning tradition today with cybercasts and podcasts.

"Now we are transmitting concerts by Internet2 worldwide, and that is also a first," Eschenbach said. "It is just that we follow the tradition. It is a wonderful way of communication. Music is such an important factor in communication between people. One cannot find enough ways to communicate through new technologies."

The orchestra, naturally, has its own MySpace page - with, at a recent count, 124 friends (among them Renee Fleming, the opera diva who recently performed in Eugene and whose early career Eschenbach promoted).

Music, Eschenbach hopes, can save the rest of us, too.

"That's the big message that music can give. I have seen so many people going to a concert frail and sometimes sick and coming out of the concert much healthier and much better."

That's quite a tall order for the arts.

But then Eschenbach, despite his tragic start in life, is a glass-half-full kind of guy.

"I have some opera plans and I have the Orchestre de Paris, of course," he says when asked about the future. "And I have many guest engagements."

After all, music has never treated Eschenbach badly.

"Music makes you optimistic," he said. "That is one of the great things. It opens doors. It doesn't close doors."

CONCERT PREVIEW

The Philadelphia Orchestra

What: One of the world's top symphony orchestras, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

Program: Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and Orchestra in E-flat Major; Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

Where: Hult Center's Silva Concert Hall, Seventh Avenue and Willamette Street

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25 to $65 (682-5000)

Hear them online: podcasts.philorch.org
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Title Annotation:Entertainment; Christoph Eschenbach overcame a broken childhood to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra, which will play in Eugene
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 24, 2007
Words:742
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