Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lorin Maazel, 1930-2014

I arrived in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1996, just after Lorin Maazel's final year as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The season went on without a sitting music director; his successor, Mariss Jansons, was due to start the following year.

Maazel had left his stamp on the ensemble, so every guest conductor faced a group that was well-honed and accustomed to an extremely precise technique and a very strong will.  Because many of the visiting maestri were not equipped to pick up those formidable reins, the orchestra could sometimes sound rather indifferent.

This was my first position with a world class orchestra, so I write this from the vantage point of hindsight.  Every rehearsal and concert in Heinz Hall regularly sent me into a kind of seventh heaven.  But only when the new boss arrived in February did the orchestra really snap to, playing with an alertness which I had not encountered thus far. The program itself felt like Jansons was auditioning the orchestra all over again: Roman Carnival by Berlioz, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919), and Mahler's Symphony no. 1.  (Imagine riding on a roller coaster for an entire week, and you get the idea.)

The orchestra was largely divided into Maazel devotees and those who would not miss him, with a few who liked Jansons and Maazel in equal measure.  But in sound and aesthetic, a Maazel orchestra could not be more different from a Jansons orchestra (or for that matter one led by the great Claudio Abbado, who died earlier this year). Jansons asks players to breathe together and listen intently to one another, receiving cues not just from the podium, but also from within. Maazel, however, was always in command, always in control. His imprint on the orchestra was so strong that it took Jansons a good year to make the ensemble his own.

One member of the orchestra shared with me a rather perverse detail, which I found hard to believe: at every opportunity, Maazel cued the player at every single entrance.  Sometimes it was with a flick of the wrist, or with his face, and if he was busy with another section, a kind of backhand glance, as if to make sure the player knew he had not forgotten.  Of course, the player adored Maazel.

This was a big part of his prodigious skills as podium master -- his photographic memory.  Maazel sometimes appeared to be turning pages with his eyes as he conducted.  This is an essential difference between Maazel and most other conductors who lead without score: he saw every single note in his head as the music was playing, each individual page of score flipping before his mind's eye.  On tour for a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at Carnegie Hall, one of the solo singers became ill, requiring a last minute replacement to fill in without the benefit of rehearsal.  This kind of thing was child's play for Maazel, who quietly mouthed the words to the substituting singer before each phrase during the entire performance.

This was just one of three traits which separated Maazel from the rest of his exalted fraternity.

His ears were legendary.  Maazel heard everything.  Having a good ear is a prerequisite to standing in front of players and telling them what to do.  But being able to hear individual players the way he did -- even string players sitting in the back who blend in with the rest of the section -- was a freakish gift very few conductors possess.  (Boulez has this, as did Lukas Foss.)  But because Maazel was also an accomplished violinist, he could hear and watch each player's hands, and thus be able to instantly know if that player was really playing his part accurately.  No wonder Maazel struck fear in the hearts of many.

Then there were those unbelievable hands.  Anything he wanted to do, he could do.  He was given to frequent whims, where he could detour at a moment's notice, and take the entire orchestra with him, without a hitch or hiccup.  This would account for the occasional uneven performance, but the command was always there.  For a rehearsal of his work, The Giving Tree, he stopped to say he would do one bar differently, and proceeded to conduct this one measure in fifteen separate beats.  With most any other conductor, there would be questions about how the bar would be divided, and in what pattern, etc. - - - never with Maazel.

He knew what to rehearse and what to leave alone.  Indeed, another player once recounted how, before a performance of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony (a very demanding and exacting work), Maazel rehearsed only three or four passages from the entire symphony, releasing the players well in advance of the closing time, deeming them ready for the concert that night.  And the performance? "It was the best Sibelius performance I've ever been a part of," the player responded.

He was a guest in Pittsburgh once during my residency, for his 75th birthday. In addition to the aforementioned work, the program included Dvorak's Symphony no. 9, and Ravel's Mother Goose Suite.  After the first play through of the Ravel, he stopped to joke that, if he ". . . were a young conductor, I would talk far too long about what I'd like you to do differently." The players laughed knowingly, but everyone understood that Maazel knew exactly what spots could be left alone, even those that were not played to his satisfaction.

I will never forget how, during a passage of the Ravel, he seemed to forget he was on the podium, looking downward, momentarily losing himself in the music . . . .  and the magic was palpable.  During my half dozen years in Pittsburgh, it may have been the most ravishing playing I ever heard from the orchestra.

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