Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001

No recent appointment has generated more punditry on the part of critics, musicians, composers, musicologists and others than that of Lorin Maazel, 70, to Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.

Maazel, who has led orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Cleveland and Pittsburgh and is currently music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, will replace Kurt Masur, 73, in the 2002-03 season. His four-year contract will commit him to 10 weeks of subscription concerts in the first season and 14 weeks for the remaining three seasons.

Practically undisputed is Maazel’s virtuoso baton technique or his unparalleled ability to absorb complex scores, yet more questionable is the range of artistic vision that he will bring to the Philharmonic. To some, he is something of a throwback: an elderly conductor steeped in the European tradition but with no known passion for contemporary innovation or even his own national traditions.

Others stress that Maazel, born in France to American parents, is the first American to lead the New York Philharmonic since Leonard Bernstein stepped down in 1969 and only the third American conductor since the orchestra was established in 1842 by the Connecticut-born maestro Ureli Corelli Hill. He is also the first composer-conductor the Philharmonic has had since Pierre Boulez held the directorship post (1971-1977).

A closer look at the nearly two decades he spent in charge of two other venerable American orchestras shows Maazel to be a modest advocate of modern and American music, although that has lessened in recent years.

1972-82: The Cleveland Orchestra

During his tenure in Cleveland, Lorin Maazel stretched the orchestra’s flexibility as an ensemble and demonstrated himself to be an ardent if not particularly discriminating champion of the new and recent. He presented a respectable nine world premieres, eleven U.S. premieres, and 35 Cleveland premieres. He also brought a controverisal, expansive podium style and a sometimes questionable taste.

On the positive side, Maazel created two important contemporary music series during his Cleveland tenure. “Music of Today” ran for three seasons (1975-78) and spotlighted such composers as Harrison Birtwistle, George Crumb, Charles Wuorinen, Luciano Berio, and Toru Takemitsu. The “Great Composers of Our Time” series (later renamed “Composers of Our Time” to allow history to be the ultimate judge) honored Aaron Copland (1974), Boris Blacher (1976), Michael Tippett (1977), Olivier Messiaen (1978), Krzysztof Penderecki (1980), Alberto Ginastera (1981), and Leonard Bernstein (1982).

Such activities earned the Clevelanders three ASCAP Awards during the 1970s. In total, Maazel conducted some 425 works by 132 composers — of whom 78, or about 60% created their major works in the Twentieth Century.

While that in itself is impressive, Maazel’s recorded legacy with the orchestra barely touches on music after 1900. Of his thirty recordings, the deepest forays into 20th-century repertoire were discs of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and a smattering of Gershwin and Prokofiev. And though he covered a wide range of repertoire in both in concert and on recordings, it is difficult to draw out a unified artistic vision.

(Information courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives)

1988-1996: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Maazel transformed the Pittsburgh Symphony from a decent ensemble that often did not play up to its potential to one that was competitive with the majors (it was also in Pittsburgh where he commanded the first seven-figure conductorship in history, but that is for another survey).

Maazel also began to advocate American music in Pittsburgh, highlighted by a year-long American music festival that subsequently led to an ASCAP/John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music. In his final years with the orchestra Maazel also became active as a composer in his own right. In the 1995-96 season, Heinz Hall audiences heard the world premieres of his Music for Cello and Orchestra with Mstislav Rostropovich and the Concerto for Flute with James Galway. In addition, he led his “Monaco Fanfares” in 1996 and accompanied Galway in his “Irish Vapors” at a benefit concert in April 1994.

Yet while American music was a higher priority during his Pittsburgh tenure, premieres and commissions became increasingly infrequent. Under Maazel’s baton, an average of two works were premiered each season, including his symphonic adaptations of Wagner operas.

Today: The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra of Munich, and beyond

Sadly, it appears that he has backed away from contemporary – and American – music as his career shifted back to Europe. As music director of the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian State Radio, Maazel has leaned heavily on the standard repertory. A look at his 2000-01 season schedule indicates a heavy emphasis on Strauss tone poems, Brahms symphonies, and French showpieces.

Tradition-bound Munich is much different than larger-than-life, multicultural New York, where orchestral music competes with a good deal more cutting-edge art. One hopes the shift back to the U.S. will reverse the backwards flow from American music that began after leaving Pittsburgh.

From Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001
by Brian Wise
© 2001 NewMusicBox