New York Philharmonic: Fine Famous Friends

Classic Arts Features   New York Philharmonic: Fine Famous Friends
Flutist Sir James Galway, who returns to the New York Philharmonic to open the 2008 _09 season (performing Ibert's Flute Concerto on Sept. 17), provides a glimpse of the personal side of his friend, Music Director Lorin Maazel.

The relationship of soloist to conductor is notoriously delicate. In the best of circumstances, it is a careful marriage of opposites; in the worst, a stalled dialectic. The most infamous conductor-soloist debacle in music history found pianist Glenn Gould and conductor Leonard Bernstein at such pronounced odds over the tempo of a Brahms concerto that Bernstein felt it necessary to disown the performance in an announcement from the stage.

So here is news: Flute virtuoso Sir James Galway looks forward to working with conductor Lorin Maazel when he and the New York Philharmonic perform Ibert's Flute Concerto on September 17, the Orchestra's Opening Night Gala. The Maazel _Galway relationship is as close as any conductor-soloist relationship one might imagine. Yet, some 20-plus years ago, it got off to a stormy start : literally.

"When I first met Lorin, it was a bad day in Pittsburgh, the rain coming down in torrents," Sir James recalled in a telephone conversation. "Lorin had counted the number of rallentandos in the concerto we were doing and they came to 15. I asked him why he had counted them, and he told me, 'Because each one is different.' He wanted to be prepared, you see."

Does such thorough preparation make Mr. Maazel easy to work with? "Let me put it this way: you can only forget something if you don't really know it. And Lorin never forgets anything."

After the piano and the violin, the flute probably has more concertos written for it than any other instrument. How many of these are in this conductor's repertoire? "I don't have a number, but Lorin and Leonard Slatkin have more flute concertos in their heads than all the other guys put together. Maybe it's because Lorin used to play the flute," Sir James says, adding with a chuckle, "He played it as a kid, but wisely gave it up."

The concertos include several contemporary scores, such as John Corigliano's Pied Piper Fantasy (which Mr. Maazel and Sir James performed with the Philhar-monic in 2004). That rollicking piece of melodic chaos contains one massive dissonance chord which the composer requires be held for two seconds. In rehearsal, the flutist noted, Mr. Maazel held it for four seconds. This time, Sir James didn't ask the question; he simply arrived at a logical, if also amusing (given the chord's thick mat of prickly pitches), conclusion: "He must have been listening for wrong notes."

Any wrong notes would have been considerably easier for the conductor to spot in Irish Vapours and Capers, since he was also the composer of this flute-and-orchestra evocation of Irish musical life.

At the time of its New York Philharmonic premiere in 2005, at a concert celebrating its composer's 75th birthday, with Sir James as soloist and dedicatee, the renowned Irish flutist quipped: "I hate to think how many Irish bars Lorin frequented to get all these Irish jigs." Now, he takes a more philosophical attitude: "I know he spent a month in Ireland researching, so he must have gone into plenty of pubs. And when you go into the pubs and people play music, there's silence. People stop talking and listen to the music." It was the music in the pubs, not the Irish whiskey there, that mattered.

Not that there's anything wrong with the whiskey. "Dinners at Lorin's home mean the best food and the best drink. He likes a good wine and a good after-dinner drink." The Maestro also tells a great joke. "Lorin is the best joke-teller I know," says a man whose ready wit qualifies him for that title himself. Are there any favorite Maazel jokes Sir James would care to share? "No, not in print. Not that his jokes are dirty; they never are. But part of it is in the telling."

Preparation, attention, knowledge of the repertoire, and a sense of humor are all quite important; but is there some other, perhaps less palpable characteristic that makes Lorin Maazel a valued partner on the podium?

"He's always been charming and helpful to me, and I know he cares a lot about his family and friends," Sir James muses. "He spends a lot of time with his children and is a good dad." He sums up his insights: "I think Lorin cares about how things turn out. I think he cares a great deal about life.

Kenneth LaFave composes and writes about music.

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