Reading and Writing

Classic Arts Features   Reading and Writing
From Mahler to current music director Lorin Maazel, the New York Philharmonic has a great tradition of the conductor-composer. Maazel talks about his dual role.

Madeline Rogers: In March you will lead the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in a program of your own works, and in May you will conduct the world premiere of your opera, 1984, in London. How do you reconcile the dual roles of composer and conductor?

Lorin Maazel: When I compose I don't think as a conductor until later, when I edit the music. Then I step back and say, "Whoa . . . do I have too many notes here? Do I have too few notes?" So I push here and pull there as an interpreter would, making the core of the idea more accessible.

MR: Is conducting your own work difficult?

LM: I'm not very fond of conducting my own music. As my wife once said, hearing one's music performed is like hearing a personal diary read over the radio; it's much too revealing. When you write music you care about, you're saying who you really are, and anybody sensitive to music will discover a lot about you that you may not necessarily want known. On the other hand, my music is fairly difficult to perform, so I'm not happy farming it out to others.

MR: Turning to the works of other composers: this season the Orchestra commissioned three major works‹Augusta Read Thomas's Gathering Paradise, which was performed earlier in the season; Mark-Anthony Turnage's Scherzoid; and Wolfgang Rihm's Two Other Movements. Can you talk a bit about the commissioning process?

LM: We try to bring into the loop as many talented composers from as many diverse compositional languages as possible. Of course, a commissioned work is always an adventure: you never quite know how it's going to turn out even though you assume that the composer will not have departed from the style of his or her other works. Of course, you very often can consult with the composer during the compositional process so that there is some input.

MR: What about the Rihm piece, for example. What is his music like?

LM: Complex. Difficult to listen to at times. Without compromise. Eerie. Weird. Odd. Very intriguing.

MR: And what about Mr. Turnage's Scherzoid, which will be performed this month with Xian Zhang on the podium?

LM: All his music is very dense and exploitative to the nth degree of orchestral resources. Difficult to grasp, and challenging. That's why we're performing it.

MR: Turning to more familiar repertoire: you will close out your third season as Music Director with the Sixth Symphony by another Philharmonic conductor-composer, Gustav Mahler. When you've conducted a work many times, as you have all of Mahler's symphonies, how do you keep your approach fresh?

LM: As a conductor, you stay fresh only if you approach music intuitively and viscerally. If you approach it as a cerebral exercise then your interpretation is sterile because it springs from an artificial analysis of the work to the detriment of the heart that beats within it.

Obviously, as musicians we have to analyze a work so that we know what the first theme is, the second theme is, and so forth. But that's just technical‹it's certainly not what it's all about. A composer uses structural conceits to help him move the work forward‹"Well, now I'll write a fugue because it seems appropriate." But if he's a great composer, he then fills that fugue full of life, and it's that life that you want to bring forth.

Madeline Rogers is the New York Philharmonic's Director of Publications.

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