Today's Classical Music Video

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lorin Maazel (1930-2014) RIP

I first saw Lorin Maazel conduct at Plateau Hall in Montreal in 1962. He was touring with the French National Orchestra. He was 32-years-old at the time and a real whiz-kid. He conducted everything from memory and seemed to have the most precise stick technique I had ever seen. Among other works he conducted Stravinsky's Petrouchka and Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture. At the end of the Berlioz there is a loud sustained brass chord and Maazel dealt with it in the most theatrical way possible. He demonstratively dropped his arms while the brass players held their chord. Then when it seemed they could not hold the chord a second longer he flamboyantly cut them off. For much of his career he was that kind of conductor. He loved to draw attention to himself rather than to the music.

On that night in Montreal, he conducted a lot of flashy music and conducted it brilliantly. If you wanted brilliance he was your man. If you wanted sensitivity or depth of feeling, well, better look elsewhere.

I had the opportunity to interview him in Cleveland when he was the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. As a successor to George Szell he was a huge disappointment. In the interview I found him pompous with intellectual pretentions that were laughable. During my visit to Cleveland he conducted the dullest performance of the Bruckner Fifth Symphony I ever heard.

He became known for performances in which the conductor pulled the music this way and that for no apparent reason. This was not interpretative insight; it was sheer willfulness.

In his later years he mellowed a great deal and pontificated less as he became more at ease with himself. He married for a third time and bought a farm in Virginia. He had the idea that he would start a school-festival at the farm. This became the Castleton Festival. Unfortunately, he probably started it too late in life and had only a few years to work on it. It was a worthy concept and showed that Maazel really cared about young people and about nurturing talent.

The last time I saw him conduct was at the ill-fated Black Creek Summer Festival in Toronto in 2011. He brought the Castleton Festival Orchestra in for a few concerts. The one I heard was superb. Mendelssohn's Incidental Music for a Midsummer Night's Dream with readings from the play by Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. It was not repertoire I would have associated with Maazel but he did it splendidly.

Maazel was renowned the world over as an orchestral technician. He knew how to rehearse, he had a great ear and an amazing memory. The performances he gave were nearly always well-rehearsed but one seldom left his performances feeling that the music had been well-served.

In the attached video recorded just a few years ago Maazel comes across as exceedingly affable and self-deprecating. Unfortunately, not many of the musicians who played for him remember him that way.

Paul E. Robinson

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