American conductor Lorin Maazel died earlier today from complications of pneumonia at his home in Virginia. He was 84.
The former child prodigy was born in 1930, began playing violin in “the Karl Moldrem Baby Orchestra” by the age of five, and was conducting at seven years old. In 1938, he made his first appearance on the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium, sharing a program with Leopold Stokowski. He would eventually hold the top posts at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, and the New York Philharmonic, among many others.
He was a polarizing figure on the podium. He was universally praised for his baton technique and his knowledge of the scores, and some musicians loved him for always having a strong point of view. On the other hand, he could come across as cocky, dogmatic, and downright abrasive, especially during rehearsals. His interpretations were often idiosyncratic — fans would refer to them as “highly personal,” while others considered them merely weird; the last time I saw him with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he conducted a Sibelius 2nd Symphony I described as “quirky and distorted thanks to [his] fussy interpretation.”
Regardless of one’s opinions about him or his conducting, he was certainly prolific: his website lists him as having “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.” He also dabbled in composing, with 1984, his opera based on George Orwell’s novel, receiving its world premiere at the Royal Opera House, Convent Garden and a revival at La Scala.
Some relevant links:
- The New York Times obituary is HERE
- A Los Angeles Times article and interview from his 80th birthday, republished by Maazel’s website, is HERE
UPDATE (July 15, 2014):
In The Wall Street Journal, David Mermelstein offers an excellent overview of Maestro Maazel’s life and career (HERE). A few excerpts:
“Even in his last years—when he increasingly devoted time to mentoring young artists at the Castleton Festival, held each summer since 2009 on his Virginia estate—Maazel could be fierce with his charges. A former conducting fellow at Castleton recently told me of rehearsals in which the maestro first exploded and then stormed out after finding the musicians not properly prepared.”
“Maazel’s interpretations had long divided listeners. No one could question his technique—the control of his beat was extraordinary—or his intelligence (musical and otherwise). Nor was his command of the music ever in doubt. But that very attribute led Maazel to pursue sometimes willful interpretations of the standard repertory—bending phrases, manipulating tempos and shifting dynamics in ways that many felt ill served the music.”
“Franz Welser-Möst, one of Maazel’s successors as music director in Cleveland, once told me that he regarded Maazel as the greatest living conductor—but only when he was “on.” The implication was clear: Maazel was so talented that avoiding boredom was a regular challenge, one that could not always be averted.”
(David Mermelstein, The Wall Street Journal, “A Great Conductor — When He Wanted to Be,” July 14, 2014)
- Lorin Maazel with bust in his likeness at the Vienna State Opera: care of Lorin Maazel Facebook page
- In rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: photo by Robert Gauthier, care of the Los Angeles Times