Maazel World
An extensive talk with Lorin Maazel, famed and veteran orchestra conductor


In the current issue of National Review, I have a piece on Lorin Maazel — a piece from an interview I had with him. Who is Lorin Maazel? He is a conductor, and one of the most prominent of our times. He recently completed a tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. I went to see him in his office at Lincoln Center, about a week and a half before he left.


I propose, in this column, to give you more from our interview — more than what appears in the magazine. We’ll hop-scotch around, Impromptus-style. Ready? First, though, I’ll provide a few more biographical facts.


Maazel was born in 1930, to American parents in France. He did most of his growing up in Pittsburgh. He first conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1942 — yes, when he was twelve years old. Maazel was a very rare thing: a child prodigy who conducted. Most, as you know, are instrumentalists. And, in fact, the Maazel case is nearly unique.

This is what his bio says: “Between ages 9 and 15 Lorin Maazel conducted most of the major American orchestras.” As I ask in my magazine piece: What does your bio say?

Warming up, I asked Maazel whether he liked music as much as ever, after eight decades. He said yes: “Your appreciation grows. It deepens as one’s life experience widens. One’s perception of music deepens.”

And does he still enjoy even very familiar music — say, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony? Is that still glorious and thrilling to him? “It’s as glorious and thrilling as the day it was written,” he says, with complete confidence. “If you become jaded because of overexposure, the problem is yours, not the composer’s.”

Maazel says that he conducted some pieces early in his career simply because he felt he should: because he was an American, because there was pressure to support certain trends in music, etc. He says, “I conducted music for which I did not have much affinity.” And he cites Schoenberg’s Op. 31, the Variations for Orchestra. This is a piece one does not hear very often today.

“I must say, I conducted it rather well. I memorized every note, and I was in good company: Furtwängler gave the world premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic — 28 rehearsals, I think [!]. . . . I came back to the work 30, 40 years later, and I found it well constructed — certainly the work of a master — but I found the musical values to be not very rewarding. And the piece today hardly means anything to me emotionally.”

But back in that early period, Maazel did “what all musicians do at one time. They feel they have to be somehow with-it, at the beck and call of fads” and so on. You do that for a while, and then you mature — feeling less pressure and more freedom.

Most people think that age is an advantage on the podium. So does Maazel, surely, right? “Well, it depends on who’s growing older. I’ve always tried to learn as I’ve moved forward in life, and I consider each performance to be a learning experience, and try to capitalize on what I’ve learned.” That is not true of all conductors or other musicians. Some of them “age complacently,” says Maazel, “and those folks don’t improve, I’m afraid. It’s a question of mindset.”

Today there is a great hunger for youth on the podium — orchestra administrators, and some critics, want a young conductor, which some people find wrongheaded, if not perverse. In a public interview with me last summer, Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, called this phenomenon “a sickness of our time.” And Maazel?

He says that it was he who “broke the youth barrier” — the youth barrier for conductors. After World War II, he says, “there was nobody [else] around under 40, with the exception of Bernstein,” and “he was a personality more than a young conductor: the Renaissance man,” offering many gifts. “I had so much experience as a child that by the time I was 20 I had rather a lot of repertoire.” At 30, Maazel was asked to conduct in Bayreuth: “the youngest conductor ever, and the first American.” And “I was already a very experienced musician,” which is highly unusual.

“Conducting implies . . . conducting. It implies conducting those who sit in front of you, musicians of experience, of vast accomplishments, masters of their instruments. Are you really, at the age of 27, unless you are a super-, super-genius, and we certainly hope you are, able to tell that musician in front of you something he doesn’t already know?”

To become a conductor — a true conductor — takes a lot of time. And “you can’t practice at home; you learn on the job. That’s the nature of the beast. So you want to learn on the job in some distant province.” Alas, “there are no distant provinces today.” But “all of us who have achieved a certain degree of respect in our profession have started off that way,” out in a province. “Maestro von Karajan buried himself in a city called Aachen and worked his way methodically through the repertoire. Yours truly conducted every bad orchestra in Europe, between the ages of 24 and 35. There wasn’t one that escaped my notice. I tried out the repertoire, so that by the time I got to the Vienna Philharmonic” — he was well and truly ready.

“Youth is a mindset,” Maazel says, “not a physiological state. I know so many young people who were born old. If you have an enthusiasm and an inquisitive mind, are quick-witted and have good reflexes, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 10 or 100, you’re going to function very well” as a conductor. “The music that you touch will have the impetus, drive, and vitality it needs.”

Incidentally, Maazel’s father is 106.

Lorin Maazel was not just a conducting prodigy but a violin prodigy. Might he have made an entire career of the violin? “I was thinking of it. I love the violin, and there was something called the Glazunov Contest, right here in New York, right after the Second World War. I decided I was going to win that contest, and fortunately for me I got double pneumonia two days before I was supposed to come to New York, and ended up in bed for weeks. I probably would have won [the contest] because I was playing amazingly well, and then I would have missed my whole career as a conductor, because I would have marched around the world playing the Glazunov and other concertos. . . . I had an excellent tone, excellent sound, and very nimble fingers, but I would have grown bored, and I would have stopped practicing, and I would have ended up in some orchestra, probably. And fortunately I got this pneumonia at just the right time.”

Maazel did play in an orchestra — the Pittsburgh Symphony — “just to put myself through school. My parents were of modest means, so I worked all day as a violinist and put myself through night school, at the University of Pittsburgh.” Then there was a Fulbright, and Maazel went to Italy.

He has a famous, much marveled-over baton technique. Is it like anyone else’s (past or present)? “I would not be in a position to say. It’s born out of the imperative to make music. So I try to find the manual expression of whatever I feel about the music in a particular instance. I don’t think I ever conduct the same two bars the same way.”

In the course of talking about the relationship between a conductor and an orchestra, Maazel says this: “Making music [in this way] is like playing chamber music. There is a lot of give and take, and if you only know how to give and don’t know how to take, you’re not a chamber-music player and you’re not a successful conductor. When I encounter a different first-chair oboe player — someone I don’t know — I give him every opportunity to express himself as he would like to. If I have a problem with it — if it conflicts with my overall concept — I will say something.” Otherwise, “I give the players their freedom.”