Homecoming: Lorin Maazel

Classic Arts Features   Homecoming: Lorin Maazel
This month Lorin Maazel returns to the Orchestra overwhich he presided for seven years. It was a periodmarked by excellence and a strong bond betweenmaestro and musicians, as Robin Tabachnik reveals.


By fortunate happenstance, it has been my ongoing assignment to document Lorin Maazel's career from the decade preceding his assuming the New York Philharmonic's directorship in 2002 through his seven-year tenure, up to the present, when he reunites with his favorite orchestra for the first time since they parted in 2009. This was not only considered one of the Orchestra's most brilliant musical eras : it was also a period marked by a rare friendship between conductor and players, one forged of mutual respect, trust, and admiration. They recognized one another's worth and made the most of it.

Nothing exemplifies this more than Mr. Maazel's reunion programs, which feature three principal players as soloists: Harp Nancy Allen and Flute Robert Langevin, spotlighted in Mozart's Flute and Harp Concerto; and Horn Philip Myers, in Richard Strauss's Horn Concerto No. 1. These works were performed by these very artists in 2007 and 2005, respectively; the former Music Director and current Philharmonic Honorary Member says, "I just couldn't resist expressing my admiration for many of our musicians who are distinguished soloists as well as fabulous orchestral players."

Mr. Maazel praises the soloists in the first week: "Robert Langevin's playing is like an evening out with the flute; wall-to-wall, focused, beautiful tone from bottom to top. And he is wonderfully partnered in the Mozart concerto with Nancy Allen's superbly formatted, perfect harp playing. They make this work come alive." He believes the key to appreciating Strauss's Horn Concerto No. 1 is to remember that the composer's father was a horn player: "Strauss's great genius coupled with his having heard his dad practice day and night to make this piece so much fun to perform, but never more so than with Phil Myers, whose playing is in a category by itself : powerful yet lyrical; incomparable."

Lorin Maazel also chose other works with which he and the Philharmonic have had no particular history because of his eagerness to share his love for the pieces. "I tried to pick things we either hadn't performed, or performed rarely," he says. "Seven glorious years with these players taught me that exploring new challenges with them always promises to be a unique, gratifying experience."

What drew him to these particular works? "Debussy's Jeux is an austere play of colors and rhythm divorced from any musical school or category," he reflects. "Audiences, while struck by its beauty and originality, are nonetheless puzzled by what to make of it. It's up to me as interpreter to come up with an interesting enough performance so that it will make sense!" About Mozart's Symphony No. 38, he says, "I feel it has the same inspirational level as Mozart's last three symphonies : that vigor, beauty, and sobriety so typical of his later works."

At the heart of Lorin Maazel's love of music is a decided absence of snobbery, and he scoffs at those who use the term "program music" in a pejorative fashion. "All music is program music," he explains. "Isn't a Bach fugue like a confrontation among four people? So An Alpine Symphony is descriptive of raindrops and thunder in the Alpine world that Strauss saw through his window, sitting at a tiny desk just big enough to hold the manuscript." Of Till Eulenspiegel, the work of a 23-year-old composer, the conductor says, "I love that quirky tongue-in-cheek writing. It shows Strauss's wonderful sense of humor and I try to bring that forth."

Lorin Maazel began his tenure in 2002, after appearances in 2000 that made him a favorite of the Orchestra's musicians. These followed decades of world-class experience, a career that began when he was a child prodigy of nine who would go on to assume some of the world's most prestigious musical posts in symphony and opera. "He walked in like a great horse trainer," remembers Nancy Allen, "such control, mastery, and professionalism! And rehearsal technique, of which we hadn't seen the likes for quite a while. But more than that," she stresses, "he respected and trusted us, knowing that if he did the right thing on the podium, we would be there."

For those seven years they were there indeed, premiering new works by such important composers as Shchedrin, Adams, and Kernis; presenting brilliant concert performances of operas like Strauss's Elektra and Puccini's Tosca; even spanning political barriers with the now historic 2008 visit to North Korea.

Still, it was through the day-to-day business of rehearsal and performance in Avery Fisher Hall that Mr. Maazel and the Philharmonic became a true union of equals who challenged and inspired one another. "It was amazing to watch him for seven years," says Philip Myers. "He knows how he wants a piece to go and how to get everyone on the same page with him, but in a wide range of approaches : which kept life interesting! He knows current performance practice, and how to avert common errors before they happen, oftentimes just showing it with his hands."

The attention to detail for which Lorin Maazel is justly famous extends to the musicmaking of everyone in the orchestra : each component must know its importance. "He is keenly aware of the harp," says Nancy Allen, "and he's never let me down in terms of a cue. His attentiveness showed respect for my instrument and made me feel appreciated." Recalling some performances of opera arias, she remembers "an aria I knew quite well, where the voice leans a great deal on the harp. He said to me, 'Nancy, I think you should go home and read the text; it would help you understand the contour of things.' How many conductors would do that?"

"I've played with Maestro Maazel for 18 years," says Robert Langevin, who had been principal fl ute of the Pittsburgh Symphony during Mr. Maazel's tenure there. "He simply has no weaknesses. He's given me a personal knowledge of phrasing, balance, and pacing that extends to all the playing I do; he had complete mastery of the overall architecture of things. He's left the orchestra with a permanent sense of self-esteem; to have the endorsement of someone of his abilities is quite wonderful."

Since leaving the Philharmonic Mr. Maazel has assumed the directorship of the Munich Philharmonic and devoted considerable time to his Castleton Festival. "The Castleton Festival is in its third year now," he says proudly, "and, much to my gratifi cation, it's turning into a major festival. It's a learn-on-the-job situation for young professionals who are chosen on merit alone. It's incumbent on older, more experienced musicians to pass on to young people what we've learned over the decades, technically and musically. After seven years with the world's most virtuoso orchestra it's a nice full circle to teach those who are just beginning."

But this month Lorin Maazel's thoughts are on his reunion with this "virtuoso orchestra," which he unabashedly says will always have a special place in his heart. "I do believe I've left behind an orchestra without peer. There will be some new faces : that newness is what perpetuates our profession, making every concert a new experience but based on the experiences of the past. Yet, I rather suspect we'll pick up exactly where we left off."

Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.

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