Magazine | July 20, 2009, Issue

Music: Podium Prodigy

Lorin Maazel is in his office, wearing blue jeans, surrounded by musical scores — some of them written by himself. The conductor, born in 1930, is wrapping up his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. He began in 2002 — 60 years after his debut with the Philharmonic. Yes, he was twelve, and he was a rare thing: a child prodigy who conducted. Almost all are instrumentalists; the Maazel case is nearly unique. His bio says, “Between ages 9 and 15 Lorin Maazel conducted most of the major American orchestras.” What does your bio say?

Some musicians are not especially articulate, which is no shame: Their profession or art does not require speech. But Lorin Maazel is fabulously articulate, and we settle into a wide-ranging conversation. His speech is curious, interesting: somewhat rarefied, not from anywhere, really. His hometown is Pittsburgh, but his English, no.

I ask whether he likes music as much as ever, after these eight decades. He says 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? Oh, “it’s as glorious and thrilling as the day it was written. If you become jaded because of overexposure, the problem is yours, not the composer’s.”

Most people think that age is an advantage on the podium. Does Maazel think so? Surely he does. But he says, “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.” That is not true of all conductors or other musicians, Maazel notes. Some of them “age complacently, and those folks don’t improve, I’m afraid. It’s a question of mindset.”

Later on, we return to this question, and Maazel avers, “Youth is a mindset, 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 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.” Maazel figures he would have won — “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 violin concertos. “I would have grown bored, I would have stopped practicing, and I would have ended up in some orchestra, probably.”

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. As for Milstein, “he was not the greatest fan of yours truly.” Once, 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.”

We turn to the subject of composition, and Maazel’s career, or sideline, as a composer. Has he achieved all he wanted? “I never set out to achieve anything.” Rather, “I write because somebody asks me to write, and Rostropovich started me off on this.” Rostropovich is the late, great cellist. And he heard “some stupid piece of mine” — a waltz, a pièce d’occasion — and said he had to have a concerto. Maazel agreed, but “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.” And others (e.g., the flutist James Galway) asked him for more.

So, who are the composers of today worth listening to? Maazel has an immediate answer: “Penderecki.” Then he says, “Um . . . well . . .” Long, long pause. “Mention some American composers I’ve conducted here,” he says. I say, “I hesitate.” He says, “Kernis? I think he’s a very, very talented composer, a master of what he does.” That is Aaron Jay Kernis. He 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 the great Alban Berg, who chose to write “tonal-sounding twelve-tone music,” which “I find quite remarkable.” We speak of his violin concerto, and also his two operas: Wozzeck and Lulu.

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.” And “the music is so powerful.”

“Why do people sneer at Puccini and Tchaikovsky?” I ask. Maazel answers, dismissively, “Envy.”

On to other composers, including Bruckner. A conductor once told me that he had a hard time conducting Bruckner, probably 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.”

A discussion of conductors brings up Carlos Kleiber, of whom Maazel says, “I think he was the finest conductor of his generation.” (Kleiber was born the same year as Maazel, 1930, and died in 2004.) Not that the two saw eye to eye. They were good friends, and had a revealing lunch once. Maazel said, “Carlos, I have never heard a note from you that I could possibly agree with.” Kleiber said, “Lorin, I feel the same way about you.” Maazel said, “How do you explain that I am one of your biggest fans, and think that you’re in a class by yourself?” Kleiber said, “I feel the same way about you, Lorin!”

Many of us have observed, over the years, that Maazel is tinged with jazz — which comes out in remarkable ways, as he traverses the classical repertoire. The maestro says, “I used to play jazz piano,” and, “like every American, I have rhythm.” Technically, that should be “I got rhythm.” Speaking of Gershwin, I say, “He is unquestionably great, right?” Maazel answers, “No doubt about it.” With André Previn, Maazel is probably our foremost interpreter of Gershwin. He once recorded the complete Porgy and Bess with the Cleveland Orchestra (and associated forces).

Speaking of operas, we get on the subject of opera productions, and specifically “Euro-trash,” to use an impolite term — Maazel’s is “Euro-dreck.” He thinks that this phenomenon “will gradually peter out, because audiences will have had enough.” Let us hope — it’s been a long time already. “The faddists are clever,” says Maazel, “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 says, “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.

And where does Maazel stand on the future of classical music, about which so many fret? He says, “Thank God for China.” They are ravenous for music there. 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.”

Before we part, I ask a left-field question: Lorin 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.” In a club, he asked a girl to dance. After a few minutes, she “stopped cold” and said, “I don’t want to dance with you anymore.” “What’s the problem?” asked Maazel. “You have no rhythm,” she said. Offering catnip, I say, “That woman probably went on to be a music critic.” Maazel throws back his head and laughs again, hard.


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