Lorin Maazel 1930-2014

July 15, 2014
By George Grella
Photo: Chris Lee

Photo: Chris Lee

The conductor Lorin Maazel, a prodigy who began his public podium career at the age of eight, died Sunday at his home, at the age of 84 due to complications following pneumonia. The news was announced on the website for the Castleton Festival, which Maazel founded in 2009 and where he served as artistic director. Up to his death, Maazel and been rehearsing and preparing for the festival.

An American born in Paris on March 6, 1930, Maazel’s talent and international stature brought important attention to the quality of classical music-making in this country after World War II. At various points in his 75-year career, he served as director of the New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Radio Symphony of Berlin, the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, the Wiener Staatsoper (where he was general director), and, most recently, the Munich Philharmonic, where had been music director since the 2012 – 2013 season. Maazel conducted approximately 150 other orchestras and opera companies, in what he estimated to be “no fewer than 5,000 performances.”

Maazel was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 2002 to 2009. His appointment, coming after Kurt Masur’s long tenure, was controversial, seen from certain perspectives as safe and even reactionary, leaving the orchestra within the aesthetic and chronological confines of the classical and romantic eras. There were few complaints, however, about the quality of the orchestral musicianship under Maazel, who took the process of improving the orchestra’s playing that Masur had begun and furthered it dramatically. An ensemble that had been living somewhat on its reputation became, once again, one of the world’s finest orchestras.

His longevity was a tribute to his immense musical talent and knowledge, and he was renowned for his clear conducting technique, his attention to detail in performance, and his rehearsing, which could be both probing and succinct—he was frequently able to dismiss orchestras an hour, or more, early from their scheduled time. As popular as this made him with musicians and administrators, critical reaction to his recordings and performances was mixed throughout his career. Moment-to-moment execution could subsume large scale interpretive direction and purpose.

Long secondary to his conducting, an encounter with Mstislav Rostropovich gave him the confidence to compose more consistently and seriously: “Rostropovich came along and heard something of mine, which I thought inconsequential. He said that he had heard a fine composer and would I write something.” That meeting produced Music for Violoncello and Orchestra. His most famous, and consequential, composition is his opera 1984, from the Orwell novel, with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy and Thomas Meehan. Maazel was drawn to music drama and vocal works, and also composed The Empty Pot, for orchestra and children’s chorus to his own text and The Giving Tree, from Shel Silverstein’s book. He also wrote a work for flutist James Galway, Music for Flute and Orchestra.

His baton technique was remarkable, and his finest music-making characterized by exceptionally clear textures and purposeful phrasing, refined dynamics and fluid forward motion. He developed these virtues as a composer, and told an interviewer in 2008 “Basically I was trained as a composer not a conductor. I went through a very tough regime of writing fugues and passacaglias. I was really put through the hoop by a very demanding harmony and counterpoint teacher—to whom I shall always be grateful. He said ‘You may know how to wave your arms around, young man, but you don’t know anything about music and how it’s put together: write me ten figures.’”

His recordings have won ten Grand Prix du Disques. Maazel left a legacy of many classic, enduring recordings, especially the Sibelius Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 7, the Mahler Symphony No. 4, with Kathleen Battle as the vocal soloist, with the Vienna Philharmonic, and Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortileges, with the French RTF National Orchestra. His full Mahler and Sibelius symphony cycles with the Vienna players is less consistent, but a later Mahler cycle recorded in concert with the New York Philharmonic, and released on that orchestra’s in-house label, is one of the stronger contemporary collections, as is his live set of Bruckner symphonies (including the “Nullte” Symphony No. 0), recorded with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1999 and released in 2011.

Personal honors included twice being awarded Commandeur de la Légion do’honneur, being named Commander of the Lion in Finland, receiving the Großes Goldenes Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, the Premio Abbiati, being given honorary membership in the Vienna Philharmonic and Weiner Statsoper, honorary life membership in the Israel Philharmonic, and the title of Kentucky Colonel.

Despite recent physical infirmities, Maazel was not only active until his death but confident that his work would continue. He made 111 appearances in 2013, and although he had reduced his workload, a note signed by him on his website said “I should be fit as a conductor to take up my duties starting the season following 2014/15, which does not exclude occasional appearances along the way.” He had been able to address the audience at the opening night of the Castleton Festival, June 28.

He is survived by his wife, actress Dietlinde Turban Maazel, their two sons and one daughter, and three daughters and a son from two previous marriages. He will be remembered by the New York Philharmonic at the free Central Park concert, Monday, July 14.

Comments are closed.