Some thoughts on the death of eminent conductor Lorin Maazel

(Doug Kapustin )
July 13, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Lorin Maazel, an unusually brilliant conductor with an extraordinary mind, uncanny technique and an ability to sculpt performances of remarkable expressive beauty, died Sunday at the age of 84 in Virginia. A statement released by the Castleton Festival, which he and his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, founded at their expansive, idyllic country estate, attributed the cause of death to complications from pneumonia.

Months ago, the brilliant conductor Lorin Maazel began canceling engagements around the world and relinquished his post as music director of the Munich Philharmonic. There was vague talk of an accident, later a description of severe exhaustion.

A photo distributed by the festival of Mr. Maazel at a rehearsal of the Castelton orchestra in mid-June revealed a gaunt figure quite unlike the robust man seen there a year earlier.

Although Mr. Maazel made a public appearance at the start of this year's festival on June 28, he did not conduct productions of "Madama Butterfly" and "Don Giovanni," as scheduled. Both works were turned over to participants in the conducting seminar held at the festival. When I attended those productions last weekend, Mr. Maazel was nowhere in evidence.

Festival general manager Nancy Gustafson said that Mr. Maazel was still recovering from exhaustion, but   had overseen rehearsals and had been spending more hours each day working with young musicians than advised by doctors.

For those of us who have much admired Mr. Maazel's distinctive music-making for a long time, his death is much too soon.

Some listeners, including some of my fellow music critics, found a lot of fault with Mr. Maazel's meticulous approach (they typically branded it micro-management) and often heard calculation rather than spontaneity, but I found a great deal to admire.

I still remember the electric shock I felt at nothing more than pizzicato notes during the opening minutes of Part II of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 performed by the New York Philharmonic during Mr. Maazel's last concert as music director -- he somehow ensured that the players made each pluck register with incredible weight and portent.

Another rush I vividly recall came when I heard him conduct Brahms' Second Symphony, taking a big slow-down for the final statement of the lyrical theme of the finale -- I never heard anyone else do that -- and put extra richness into it. 

And then there's Mr. Maazel's astounding approach to Ravel's "Bolero." The first time I heard his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic was on my car radio, and I almost drove off the road. The conductor's daring tempo-bending near the close -- absolutely illegal, most people would say (Ravel included, I suspect) -- was positively thrilling to me. You just don't find many conductors that individualistic and sure of themselves.

Mr. Maazel achieved many great things in opera, too. That was the main draw of Castleton, where, since the festival's first year, he led performances notable for the personality, passion and conviction he generated from the podium.  

There is a sizable legacy on recordings to savor, of course, but the music world is poorer without the continued, active presence of Lorin Maazel.

Here are excerpts from the statement released Sunday from the Castelton Festival:

The Castleton Festival is sad to announce the passing of its founder and artistic director, the conductor, composer, musician and mentor Maestro Lorin Maazel.

Maestro Maazel died on July 13, 2014 in, Virginia, from complications following pneumonia.  Maestro Maazel had been at his home, Castleton Farms, rehearsing and preparing for his annual Castleton Festival.

Maestro Maazel, age 84, was a world-renowned conductor, as well as being a composer, mentor, father and husband. He devoted more than 75 years of his life to music-making.

A second-generation American born in Paris on March 6, 1930, Lorin Maazel began violin lessons at age five, and conducting lessons at age seven. He studied with Vladimir Bakaleinikoff, and appeared publicly for the first time at age eight. Between ages nine and fifteen he conducted most of the major American orchestras, including the NBC Symphony at the invitation of Arturo Toscanini.

In the course of his decades-long career Maestro Maazel conducted more than 150 orchestras in no fewer than 5,000 opera and concert performances. He has made more than 300 recordings, including symphonic cycles of complete orchestral works by Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Mahler, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Richard Strauss, winning 10 Grands Prix du Disques.

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