When I first met Lorin Maazel in an interview in the spring of 2002 on the eve of his becoming the New York Philharmonic's Music Director that September, I gave him a bottle of Chê¢teau Corbin '95, a superb Saint-ê_milion Bordeaux. It was a gift of welcome from my father : the bottle's owner and a longtime fan of Maestro Maazel : and myself, an opera-singer-turned-journalist who knew what a valuable asset the Orchestra had just acquired: a platinum-standard technical wizard who would turn an already virtuosic orchestra into a peerless cultural icon. In the spring of 2009 I was privileged to speak with him again, and he reflected with satisfaction on the seven remarkable intervening years during which he has zealously made superb music on the highest level and now leaves the New York Philharmonic possessed of an amazingly lush but fiercely delineated sound that has become its indelible trademark.
For Lorin Maazel, his relationship with the Orchestra has made his tenure both fruitful and joyous. "We started out on the right foot and there has never been a cloud," he says of the players. "We are cut of the same cloth, and we've moved from strength to strength. And," he adds softly, "I've discovered that it is possible to have a warm, affectionate relationship with an orchestra. They take enormous pride in their work but they are not arrogant : like all great musicians, they are modest and willing to learn."
During his tenure Maestro Maazel and the Philharmonic commissioned nine world premieres, the first of which they performed in September 2002. The work was a commemoration of September 11 for a city of people whose pain was still quite raw. The result was On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, which would go on to earn three Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize. "My choosing John Adams," Mr. Maazel explains, "was the result of a combination of events: September 11th itself, and the fact that I admired his music and thought he was the right standard-bearer to commemorate that tragic event. I guessed right," he says decisively. "The piece is very touching, powerful, and in no way stretched out of shape. He treated the subject with extreme delicacy, which I find admirable. Adams is one of our most significant and important American composers," he adds, "one who I think will be ever more celebrated as time goes on.
"It was also a kickoff to other major commissions, the common thread of which was my quest for real music, not that of faddists," he continues. "I wanted compositions that merit a second, third, and sixteenth performance, music of lasting value. And I think I got that often enough to justify the process. The Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin's The Enchanted Wanderer is a wonderful piece. Gusty's [Augusta Read Thomas's] piece, Gathering Paradise for soprano and orchestra, shows her amazing talent. These are all important pieces."
Lorin Maazel has enjoyed showing the Philharmonic off during numerous tours and residencies, across Asia, Europe, and the United States. None received more fanfare than the concert in Pyongyang, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, on February 26, 2008, the first time an American orchestra set foot on that nation's soil. Maestro Maazel's reflections, however, were realistic: "A musician once observed that no one concert has ever changed a vote," he recalls. "But it did create an atmosphere wherein people in North Korea saw that there are those outside the country who don't wish them ill; it made a statement that classical music was an apolitical area : just the right neutral ground for people who are theoretically at war to meet, and it turned out to be just that. It may take 20 or 30 years for something to happen, but there's no going back now. I remember thinking, 'My God, what's going to happen when we play The Star-Spangled Banner?' But people were standing up and cheering and applauding! What more could you ask than that?" Mr. Maazel asks, satisfied. "That was result enough."
As a former singer, I first came to know of Lorin Maazel as one of the world's preeminent operatic conductors. On four occasions during his tenure he brought that aspect of his genius to us via opera-in-concert performances: extensive selections from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and complete performances of Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilges, Puccini's Tosca, and Richard Strauss's Elektra. Maestro Maazel had recorded the first complete version of Porgy and Bess, in 1975, which helped legitimize the work as an opera in the eyes of the music world; and he chose to program it for his first Philharmonic New Year's Eve, nationally broadcast on Live From Lincoln Center in December 2002. "This piece was a victim of its own success," Mr. Maazel explains. "With all those great tunes, it was thought of as a sophisticated musical comedy when it's a proper American opera. The recording in its entirety did show that by revealing so much music that was heretofore unknown. Bringing it to the Philharmonic on such an important occasion made that point again; I had the world's greatest orchestra playing it."
The teenage Lorin Maazel was introduced to L'Enfant et les sortilges as a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Victor de Sabata. "I'll never forget those performances," Mr. Maazel marvels. "They were so revealing; it turned me overnight into a fan of both Colette, the famed writer who supplied the libretto, and Ravel. The Philharmonic did this so beautifully in 2006 that we repeated the work at Carnegie Hall this past February." A magnificent Tosca, one of the operas Mr. Maazel performs most often, took place in June 2008. "Orchestras like the Philharmonic love to play an opera like Tosca from time to time," he smiles. "The theatrical and vocal aspects are missing in purely symphonic contexts and they loved the drama; it took awhile for them to get around the rubatos and so forth, but they wanted to and they did!" And no one will forget the Maazel Elektra in December 2008: the Philharmonic tearing ferociously through that scalding music guided by the seemingly possessed maestro with the incomparable soprano Deborah Polaski, the world's foremost Elektra, embodying the title role. "I hope these Elektras will always be remembered positively by everyone," Mr. Maazel says warmly. "It was fabulous. Ms. Polaski sang her 175th performance of the role with us, and her dominance had a marvelous influence. The Orchestra tried to match her musical genius : and succeeded."
Maazel's Mahler symphony cycle has been masterful, and he completes this endeavor with performances of the Eighth at the end of this month, in his final program as Music Director. "It's quite amazing," he muses, "that as time moves on people develop an ever greater affinity to Mahler. I think it's because of the philosophical overtones in his music which go deeper than the notes themselves. You feel structure, space, the cosmos, hell : it's a kaleidoscopic perception of the human being. You instinctively feel that he has touched the mainsprings of your psyche." He concludes: "It is both invasive and pervasive, and his struggle to widen the frame in which music was written is very close to modern man's struggle, his need to feel anchored. And," he adds, "every performance of these works with the New York Philharmonic enhances my love of these symphonies; you can plumb depths in the works of Mahler with this Orchestra that would ordinarily be closed to you. And doing the whole cycle gives one a better means to grasp where each work fits into the whole musical continuum; it has a horizontal meaning as well as a vertical one."
Lorin Maazel is unhesitant on the subject of how he wishes his tenure to be remembered: "I would like to be thought of as someone who has solidified the perception of the New York Philharmonic as a truly major orchestra, perhaps first among equals. By selecting personnel, burnishing the masterworks, broadening repertoire through commissioned and contemporary works, and touring the world and showing our wares, I'd like it to be said that the New York Philharmonic is a better place because of my tenure : that's the job of any music director. My parting gift to this orchestra," he declares, "is self-confidence. I think I have instilled in them a greater sense of pride; they are now aware of their remarkable abilities and will go into the future with their heads up, and I'm thrilled to think I've had something to do with that.
"These seven years," he says, with feeling, "have been quite the culmination of my life's work; being Music Director of this great 0rchestra, dealing with people whom I respect and admire and from whom I have learned and to whom I have imparted whatever wisdom I have picked up over my many years of music-making : I'm very proud to have had that opportunity."
My 30 years in music have acquainted me with many great musicians, and Lorin Maazel ranks among the highest. The Philharmonic's next Music Director, the superb Alan Gilbert, summed up his immediate predecessor's talents as only another conductor could: "Lorin Maazel is a true master," he says. "I am awed by the command he has, by what he is able to accomplish physically; how he can guide an orchestra : nobody has that kind of facility. Lorin Maazel is incomparable."
Robin Tabachnik is a New York_ã_based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.