13 July 2014
Lorin Maazel, 84, Masterful Conductor Whose International Career Spanned Seven Decades, Has Died
Neuilly, France, March 6, 1930–Castleton, Virginia, July 13, 2014
One of the most celebrated conductors of his generation, Lorin Maazel, who died on Sunday, will be best remembered for the economical but tactically brilliant technique employed while leading — usually from memory — some 200 orchestras in no fewer than 7,000 concert and opera performances over the course of more than seventy years.
Maazel was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine to American parents who were studying music in Paris. When the family returned to the United States and settled in Los Angeles, Maazel began piano studies at the age of five and took up the violin at seven. By the time the family moved to Pittsburgh, Maazel had been identified as a conducting prodigy: before his tenth birthday, he had conducted the Interlochen Orchestra at the World's Fair, as well as the Pittsburgh Symphony. His musical lineage can be traced back to his grandfather, who played in the violin section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Lorin Maazel stated in an interview that his father had a "lovely" tenor voice, and that it was through his father's students that he learned a love for the human voice. "Opera is a drug," he said in a 2009 interview, "and once you become a part of that world, you're loathe to leave it."
Despite making the rounds of most of the major American orchestras as a child conducting prodigy — including the NBC Symphony at the invitation of Toscanini — many of Maazel's most significant early successes were in opera. In 1960, he became the first American to conduct at Bayreuth. The marriage of Wieland Wagner's heady staging of Lohengrin and Maazel's expert pacing and clarity of expression was a happy one, and in 1968, Maazel would return to Bayreuth to become the first non-German to lead the complete Ring cycle there. In 1961, he won the first of his ten Grand Prix International du Disque prizes, for his recording of Ravel's Enfant et les Sortilèges with the ORTF Orchestra and Chorus. He learned the opera from Victor de Sabata, and it became something of a signature work for him, along with much of the French repertoire; it was here that his attention to the finest details of a score was most greatly rewarded. Years later, one would hear the same in his treatment of the complete Thaïs recordingwith the New Philharmonia and Beverly Sills.
He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1962, with a star-studded Don Giovanni cast that featured Cesare Siepi in the title role. Though critics expressed concerns over certain tempos and a perceived lack of warmth (a general comment that would accompany him for much of his career), the overall verdict was that the thirty-two-year-old conductor had found his calling. Maazel conducted Le Nozze di Figaro at the Salzburg Festival in 1963 before taking a turn as both director and conductor of Eugene Onegin in Rome in 1965. That same year, he was named artistic director and chief conductor of Deutsche Oper Berlin — a post he held until 1971. During his years there, Maazel continued to refine and elevate the sound of the house orchestra while expanding the repertoire; he conducted the world premiere of Dallapiccola's Ulisse in 1968.
In 1972, Maazel began a ten-year residency as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Given that only two of the ensemble's musicians voted in favor of Maazel's appointment, the relationship got off to a rocky start, but many would argue that the music-making during this time was some of the richest in the orchestra's history. The sound was disciplined and glossy under Maazel's baton, and he introduced what he called a greater "flexibility" to the players by bringing twentieth-century works and opera into their repertoire — notably the critically-acclaimed world-premiere recording of the complete Porgy and Bess. While the jazzier sections may come across as a little stiff, this is a fine example of Maazel's knack for treating the singers as instruments while making the orchestra sing, resulting in a balanced, technically brilliant whole.
Maazel maintained an active career as a guest conductor, appearing regularly at the Paris Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala, where he opened the season in 1981, 1983 and 1985 and went on to lead ten new productions — including the Italian premiere of Berio's Re in Ascolto. (He also conducted the world premiere in Salzburg.) He presided over the soundtracks to two landmark opera films — Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni in 1979 and Francesco Rosi's Carmen in 1984. There was also the notorious Zeffirelli-directed 1986 Otello film that featured numerous startling cuts for time.
Maazel made headlines as the first American to be named director and general manager of the Vienna Staatsoper in 1982, and he made headlines again two years later, when he resigned in response to what he called "attacks on my artistic integrity as well as on my person" by the press and the city's Minister of Education and the Arts. Maazel later became music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony (1988–96), the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1993–2002) and the New York Philharmonic (2002–09). His fees were among the highest in the industry; The New York Times reported that in his last season at the Philharmonic, his salary was $3.3 million.
During the 1990s, Maazel took a more serious — if only periodic — turn toward composing, culminating in the world premiere of his opera, 1984, at Covent Garden in 2005. Based on Orwell's novel, the work was largely dismissed by critics as a vanity project (Maazel lent close to a half-million dollars to the production) and for lacking a distinct voice. This, however, didn't prevent it from also being staged at La Scala and being released on DVD.
In later years, Maazel continued to travel and to work regularly. He completed his fifth and final season as the inaugural music director of Valencia's Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in the spring of 2011 at age eighty-one. This was followed by his assumption of the role of music director of the Munich Philharmonic in 2012; health concerns led him to relinquish that post in 2014.
In 2009, through his Châteauville Foundation, Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde, established the Castleton Festival, a festival and training program for young artists, so that the craft of opera might be, as Maazel put it, "well-defended for years to come." He was at work there until shortly before his death from complications from pneumonia.
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