Lorin Maazel, a former child prodigy who became one of the most powerful, brilliant and enigmatic conductors of the late 20th century, died on Sunday in Castleton, Virginia. He was 84.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, according to the Castleton Festival, where he was the founding artistic director. Maazel had been ill since March and recently cancelled a series of conducting dates including a Boston Symphony Orchestra tour to Asia.
Maazel, who was known for his ferocious accuracy and sometimes chilly working relationships, always evoked strong responses – favorable and otherwise – from audiences, musicians, critics and administrators.
After establishing himself in Europe during the 1950s, Maazel held decade-long posts with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony, before, at age 72, becoming the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from 2002 to 2009. In these and other posts, he was viewed by musicians as brilliant and tough as nails, worthy of respect if not always affection. Critics often found him to be an enigma, capable of eliciting considerable virtuosity but interpretations that were oddly willful, even extreme.
Born in France to American parents in 1930, Maazel began studying the violin seriously at age six and performing as a conductor at the 1939 New York World's Fair at age nine. The latter date made New York Times headlines; engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic followed and the boy shared a program with Leopold Stokowski.
But despite conducting several major orchestras in the early 1940s, Maazel wasn't sure he wanted to be a musician, so he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and studied philosophy and literature and contemplated a writing career. During college, he spent two seasons in the violin section of the Pittsburgh Symphony before heading to Milan on a Fulbright scholarship. He described his early path in music on the Leonard Lopate Show in 2009:
As Maazel entered his 30s, he built his conducting career mainly in Europe, becoming the first American to conduct at Bayreuth in 1960. Debuts with the Boston Symphony in 1961 and the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 1963 followed. He was artistic director at the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1965 to 1971, and director of the Berlin Radio Symphony from 1965 to 1975.
In 1972, the Cleveland Orchestra named Maazel as its fifth music director. He was credited with maintaining the virtuosity instilled by his predecessor George Szell while expanding its touring agenda and its 20th century repertoire. But the orchestra players chafed under what was described as Maazel's interpretive willfulness; there were also lingering complaints that he was not their first choice to replace Szell.
After Cleveland, Maazel was director of the Vienna State Opera for two years before he resigned in 1984 amid political squabbles. His Pittsburgh tenure, from 1988 to 1996, was more harmonious, perhaps because his earlier experience with the orchestra gave him special insight into its unique sound.
Maazel’s appointment in New York was controversial and critics often described him as a caretaker, but even most detractors grudgingly accepted that he kept playing standards exceptionally high. He also led the orchestra on its 2008 tour to Pyongang, North Korea, an event that made international headlines and drew sharply divided responses.
Among the highlights of Maazel’s 300-plus-album discography are recordings of the symphonic works of Beethoven, Sibelius, Mahler, Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy. The “Ring Without Words," Maazel's 70-minute arrangement of the orchestral bits of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, remains a staple of symphonic programs. Maazel also composed an opera (1984, based on George Orwell's novel) and was fluent in six languages (French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, as well as English).
Maazel had homes in New York and Monaco as well as an estate in Virginia, where, after retiring from the Philharmonic, he established the Castleton Festival, a training academy and summer series. He is survived by his third wife, the German actress Dietlinde Turban, seven children and four grandchildren.
Below: Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic in Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, finale (YouTube)