The Corner

Impromptus

Who Got Rhythm?

Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1998. (Alex Halada / Reuters)

Impromptus today begins with age and the presidency. How old is too old? I continue with the Emperor of Japan (the new guy), George W. Bush (because an old, controversial case is back in the news), Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Putin ’n’ Orbán — and more. The “more” includes a visit to Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. — particularly its Casa Italiana — and a long-lived organist who was a big deal in my hometown, and, indeed, throughout the world, at least where music is appreciated.

Speaking of music: When discussing age and politicians, I also discuss age and musicians. I quote Lorin Maazel, the late conductor, whom I interviewed in 2009. He had been a child prodigy, and by the time I talked to him he was almost 80. He had very interesting things to say about age, which I quote in Impromptus.

I’d like to bring up something else, here in the Corner. Last month, I gave a talk in New York on conducting and conductors. I mentioned something about Maazel and dancing. Before I go any further, let me excerpt the piece I wrote, following my sitdown with the man:

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.

Okay. So I mentioned some of this, in my talk last month. Afterward, I met a lady who had grown up with Maazel in Pittsburgh. They were in the same dance class together, when they were twelve. It’s true, she told me: He was a terrible student. And he had no rhythm. At that age, he had already conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He was full of rhythm, and would become legendary for it. But this did not manifest itself on the dance floor, by a long shot.

Every now and then in life, you get the most remarkable testimony or corroboration.

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