Politics & Policy

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.”

I want to know what it was like to succeed George Szell — Maazel followed the great conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra (in the early 1970s). First Maazel reminds me that the orchestra had had three years of guest conductors. Then he says, “Szell was an autocrat, of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and he treated his musicians like minions. . . . The musicians resented it enormously. He fashioned an unbelievable instrument there, but they also hated him, because they were Americans,” and Szell was bent on autocracy. “That does not go down well in our country.” So Maazel inherited “a very fractured ensemble, psychologically speaking. People were very restive, angry, aggressive, and they vented a lot of their accumulated frustrations at the new music director. I was just a kid, basically, in my early forties.

“Bit by bit, as I began bringing younger players into the orchestra who hadn’t been fractured by the Szell era, the atmosphere improved, so that by the time I left it was sunny.”

A side note on Cleveland: “This was Middle America, and everybody’s fairly overweight. At that time, I was very fitness-conscious, and hard as a rock. One day I looked at them and said, ‘I’m going to put all you guys on a diet’ — you can imagine how that went down.” Not very well.

So, who are the great conductors of the 20th century? Maazel says he is reminded of the story “of the matron who said to Koussevitzky, after a performance, ‘You are the only one,’ and he said, ‘Nonsense, there is Koussevitzky, and then there’s . . . there’s . . .’ He looked at his wife and said, ‘Who else?’”

Seriously, Maazel names a slew of conductors, including Furtwängler, Toscanini, Klemperer, Reiner, de Sabata, Monteux, Erich Kleiber — Toscanini’s protégé Guido Cantelli. “I also thought that Stokowski had a fantastic flair.”

He further says this about Kleiber’s son Carlos: “I think he was the finest conductor of his generation.” (Carlos Kleiber was born the same year as Maazel, and died in 2004.) “I disagreed with almost everything he did, violently. One day we had lunch — we were very close friends, actually — and I said, ‘Carlos, I have never heard a note from you that I could possibly agree with.’ He said, ‘Lorin, I feel the same way about you.’ I said, ‘How do you explain that I am one of your biggest fans, and think that you’re in a class by yourself?’ He said, ‘I feel the same way about you, Lorin!’

“He would come to my rehearsals with a score in hand, so I returned the compliment and went to his rehearsals with a score in hand, like a student. We had a mutual admiration society. It was astonishing.”

I ask what language the two of them spoke in. “We spoke German, but one day he started to speak perfect American English. I said, ‘Carlos, this is a talent I did not know you had.’ He said, ‘I’m a bit embarrassed by my English. My mother was an American, and I grew up hearing her American English from Day One, and then I left her when I was 14, so I speak American English like a 14-year-old.’”

I ask, “How was his German?” “Stunning,” says Maazel. “And he had a witty way of expressing himself.”

Maazel is a composer, as well as a conductor. Does being a composer make him a better conductor? Yes, “and the other way around, too. . . . I’ve learned a great deal about conducting by composing, and a great deal about composing by conducting other people’s music.”

Here is a tidbit: “I have a great deal of trouble conducting my own music, or have had.”

Maazel has written music on very, very bleak themes: a piece called Farewells, about Austria — particularly Vienna — before World War I, and the catastrophic end of that world; and an opera on 1984. Funny thing is, says Maazel, “I’m a happy-go-lucky, positive, cheerful human being, who loves to tell bad jokes and worse puns. And here I am writing really shattering music. But I’m a pro, so if that’s the task I have, I go for it.”

On a 1984 scenario: “the most horrific nightmare imaginable, and one that we may yet have to live through if we’re not careful . . .”

“Obviously, the orchestral sound is my world, so when I write music I never orchestrate anything — I don’t even know what that term means. I write directly to orchestral score, no sketches, no nothing . . . I know that [a particular passage] will be played by the second clarinet, not the first, I know it is an A clarinet and not a B-flat clarinet, and so forth. So, that’s the way I compose. The color of the instrument and the music itself are interwoven.”

I ask whether he has achieved all he wanted as a composer. “I never set out to achieve anything. Like any other composer, I write because somebody asks me to write. Rostropovich started me off on this” — Rostropovich the late, great cellist (and conductor). “He heard some stupid piece of mine, something called Old-Fashioned Waltz, which is really as superficial as it could be, a pièce d’occasion, three and a half minutes . . . He heard the piece — as an encore or whatever — and said he heard the composer he was looking for.” So Maazel wrote a concerto for him. He did so “with many misgivings. I had never written a major piece like this before, and all the music I had written up to that time, I had found uninteresting. I figured there was so much bad music being written every day, why add to it?” But Rostropovich’s “conviction moved me to write a rather good piece, actually. I’m rather proud of it, in retrospect.

“And then Galway” — the flutist James Galway — “heard the piece and said, ‘You have to write me a piece,’ so I wrote a piece for him, and then a violinist — I won’t mention his name — asked me to write a piece, and then like six weeks before we were supposed to record the three pieces [for cello, flute, and violin], the violinist said, ‘I never had time to learn it,’ so I had to learn it myself.”

I ask, “Who are today’s composers worth listening to?” He answers, immediately, “Penderecki.” Then he says, “Um . . . well . . .” Long, long pause. “Mention some American composers I’ve conducted here.” I say, “I hesitate.” He says, “Kernis? I think he’s a very, very talented composer, a master of what he does.” That would be Aaron Jay Kernis. Maazel also praises Rodion Shchedrin, the Russian, and “an important composer.”

He says that the taboo on melody, harmony, and the like no longer exists — “That was 30 years ago,” and it was always “for the birds.” Maazel goes on to observe, “If you have something to say, the idiom in which you choose to say it is irrelevant.” He mentions Berg, who chose to write “tonal-sounding twelve-tone music,” which “I find quite remarkable.” We speak of Berg’s violin concerto, and also his two operas. “I am less enthusiastic about Lulu than I am about Wozzeck, but it’s still a very good piece.”

I say that I find Wozzeck “one of the great unwatchable operas,” so horrible is the subject matter, so keen is the injustice, so devastating is the work the composer has produced. I say that I feel similarly about Madama Butterfly (Puccini). Whereupon Maazel comments, “When I conduct that opera, I can’t look at the stage for the last five minutes — when she gets ready to disembowel herself. I can’t bear it. . . . The music is so powerful.”

I ask, “Why do people sneer at Puccini, and at Tchaikovsky, for that matter?” Maazel replies with complete, perfect dismissiveness, “Envy.”

A word about Beethoven: “I am listening now to a lot of his chamber music. I had the good fortune of having a string quartet in my late teens, and I didn’t play all of the Beethoven quartets, but a good number of them, and of course the violin-and-piano sonatas — played all ten of them. So my symphonic Beethoven has been enriched by the good fortune I’ve had in interacting with his music in a chamber-music mood.”

Beethoven “never lets you down. There is always that turn of phrase, a totally original mind, and a strength, even in writing variations on music by others.” You see or hear “that leonine head — not at all ugly — that leonine head at every turn of the road.”

The Missa Solemnis: “One of my favorite pieces.” Fidelio: “I’ve conducted it scores and scores of times.” It never gets old, does it? “No.”

A conductor once told me that he had a hard time conducting Bruckner. And why was that? Because he, the conductor, lacked religious belief. I say to Maazel, “Do you have to be a believer to conduct Bruckner?” He answers, “No, not at all. I’m certainly not, but I have a streak of spirituality. I think that every musician worth his salt simply must, and Bruckner’s music has a breadth and depth and an innocent genius which I find absolutely unbelievable.”

aazel on another composer: “In chamber music, I have to say my favorite composer is Brahms. . . . He’s a whole universe. You enter this shy, intimate, genial, congenial world of sentiments, grace — just sheer beauty. It’s mesmerizing.”

Maazel is tinged with jazz, which comes out in remarkable ways, as he traverses the classical repertoire. You’ll be listening to the Verdi Requiem — and, all of a sudden, there’ll be a touch of jazz. “I used to play jazz piano,” and, “like every American, I have rhythm.” (Should that be, “I got rhythm”?) “The rhythm of this orchestra” — he’s talking about the New York Philharmonic now — “is stunning, perfect. There are no bar lines for them. Everything runs horizontally, so changes of meter don’t mean a thing to this orchestra. The pulse is always there, and that’s the way I conduct.”

This conductor is a conspicuous cutter-off of notes. He does not let them linger. He gives them their value, no more, no less. “Cutting off notes — held notes — is something that I’ve given some attention to. I discovered that people were just ceasing to play a note whenever they felt like it . . .”

I know I am safe with this question, with this man: “Gershwin is unquestionably great, right?” “No doubt about it.” (With André Previn, Maazel is probably the world’s foremost interpreter of Gershwin. He once recorded the complete Porgy and Bess with the Cleveland Orchestra, and associated forces.)

We talk about two of the great violinists of mid-century: Heifetz and Milstein. Maazel played for Heifetz, who was “very critical of my playing, as he should have been.” (Heifetz was critical — caustically critical — of everything.) Amazingly, Heifetz got hold of a cadenza that young Maazel had fashioned for a Mozart concerto, and taught it to his students. Maazel learned of this in an extraordinary way: when a student of Heifetz’s came to audition for him, one time, and played that concerto, with that cadenza.

And Milstein? “He was not the greatest fan of yours truly.” Once in New York, Maazel collaborated with him on the Beethoven Concerto, and Milstein got his nose all out of joint. He walked out of rehearsals. “I’m not quite sure why I rubbed him the wrong way, because he was a god to me, and I was not only deferential, I would have shined his shoes. But he was just in that mood.” Eventually, Milstein came back, played the performances, “and actually talked to me at the end of the fourth concert, almost civilly.”

A word on our current crop of pianists: “There are so many out there today, all of whom play technically so, so well. To mention just one, Manny Ax. [Emanuel Ax.] I think he’s one of those marvelous musicians” who have “mastered the art of musical discourse. . . . I think he’s an example of music-making at the piano.”

Okay, opera productions — specifically, “Euro-trash,” to use an impolite term. Maazel’s is “Euro-dreck.” “It will gradually peter out, because audiences will have had enough.” (Let’s hope — it has been a long time already.) “The faddists are so clever, because they paint you into a corner.” Their trick is to say, “If you object to us, you’re a conservative, you’re a fuddy-duddy, you’re a living anachronism! What we do is new!” Maazel: “It’s not new. It’s boring. It’s not even vulgar. It’s just . . . dull.” The way Maazel says “dull” would wither any of these Euro-dreck directors.

“When you have a Rigoletto where everybody is dressed up as a monkey — everybody: Gilda and so forth . . . When you have Mr. Jonas, who was general manager of the opera house in Munich . . . He went to a woman to stage Rigoletto because he had read that she hates opera. She said publicly, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to render opera as ludicrous as I think it is.’ And he engages her to do this! And that’s what I find so reprehensible.”

Maazel is music director of the opera company in Valencia, and he and the general manager are “of one mind.” “There’s no reason to have someone naked making pee at the audience. That doesn’t mean anything.”

I ask whether “Euro-dreck” was the reason he stopped working at the Salzburg Festival. Yes, he says. “[Gérard] Mortier was still [artistic] director there,” and he was “very much responsible for the beginning of this Euro-dreck. But he was so worried he would be criticized, I was his counterweight. He said, ‘Okay, all the productions with Lorin will be sane, healthy, and the rest will be ‘imaginative.’” Maazel uses air quotes here, and speaks with a contemptuous irony. “My presence there actually kept Salzburg more or less clean of stupidity. I’m certainly not a prude. That’s not the point” — artistic sense is.

Maazel notes that audiences in Salzburg are usually too “cowed” to object to abominable productions. But one time, at one event, someone was not cowed. This was a play, not an opera, and it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream — in German. At the end of the first act, someone stood up and said, “It’s time to go home.” “And half the audience broke into cheers.”

I bring up a pet peeve of mine — talking from the concert stage. These days, many concerts are concert-lectures, as musicians insist on talking. Administrators want them to do so, and so do some critics. They call it “outreach.” Maazel says, “You’re not popularizing anything, you’re denigrating it. Music has its place because it’s a language” all its own. Thoughts in music “cannot be verbalized. The moment you verbalize anything,” you’re finished. “It’s like a guided tour through a picture gallery. I’ve seen the greatest pictures destroyed in three minutes of description. The point is taking something you cannot express in words.”

How about the “future of classical music”? Is Maazel one of those “death of music” people? “Thank God for China,” he says. There, they are ravenous for music. He also cites South America, in particular Venezuela, where a storied man named Abreu set up a system of youth orchestras. Maazel went down to conduct the main such orchestra, and found the experience “mind-blowing.” All those kids, full of enthusiasm, “making the most fantastic sound I’ve ever heard.” These were “youngsters who were pushing drugs the year before, or mugging people in the streets.” And now they were “sitting there like angels and playing their hearts out.”

Toward the end of our discussion, I ask him something a bit out of left field. Maazel is a real dancer on the podium, or can be. Does he dance off the stage, socially? He laughs: “I did go to dancing school, but I was the world’s worst student.” And he recalls a time in Spain, during “my wild youth, when I was sowing my oats.” He went to a club where he was told you could pick up some pretty girls. All the men were on one side, the girls on the other. The music was playing, but no man was screwing up the courage to walk to the other side to ask a girl to dance — until about 4 in the morning. “I got up and asked a girl to dance. We were about three minutes into it when she stopped cold. She said, ‘I don’t want to dance with you anymore.’ I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ She said, ‘You have no rhythm.’”

Offering some catnip, I quip, “She probably went on to be a music critic.” Maazel throws his head back and laughs again, hard.

Before I leave, Maazel says that it has been nice to talk mainly about music, rather than — oh, other things. Assorted sillinesses. I say, “Well, why waste time? Music is just about the greatest thing in the world.” He tilts his head, smiles, and says, “Don’t you think?”

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