Eminent Conductor Lorin Maazel Dies at 84

Sunday, July 13, 2014 - 02:00 PM

Lorin Maazel Lorin Maazel (Chris Lee)

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)


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Comments [11]

Eileen Davis from Ohio

Rest in peace, dear Maestro. I remember with fondness our collaboration in Cleveland and at Blossom Music Center. Although you left us far too early your legacy is secure in the superb recordings you produced for the musical world.

Aug. 02 2014 02:06 PM
philip r from tel aviv

Death is detaching one's reputation from his body

Jul. 16 2014 10:33 AM
Marlies Wolf from Hartsdale, NY

My parents and I were in the audience when Lorin Maazel conducted the NY Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium. I was two years older than the "Wunderkind" and was a very arrogant, and judgemental critic! It also so happened that we were friendly with two members of Toscanini's famed NBC Symphony,(the violinist Hugo Kolberg and the cellist Jasha Bernstein.) At a get-together at our house they laughingly told us about the lollipop rehearsal, but both were convinced of Maazel's extraordinary talent and incredible baton technique. They only questioned whether he had the maturity to interpret the masterworks he was tackling.

Through the years I grew less arrogant and often became enchanted by Maazels take on a particular piece of music. I especially appreciated his masterful symphonic condensation of Wagner's "Ring."

Maazel's death is a jarring loss for the musical world.


Jul. 15 2014 11:02 PM

"Death is the closing of the book
of a mans reputation"
- Bartlets familiar quotations

Jul. 15 2014 07:49 PM
Albert from NY

Wasn't he also the first Jew to conduct in Bayreuth after the war? Or did Solti already conduct there before 1960?

Jul. 14 2014 11:59 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Maestro LORIN MAAZEL accomplished without fanfare improvements in rehearsing techniques wherein the composer's, not some venturesome virtuoso's, limelight visions holds sway. ARTURO TOSCANINI'S lot was pretty much the same. I attended many TOSCANINI rehearsals at Studio 8 H nd at Carnegie Hall as a family member of a violinist in the orchestra who vouched for me even though I was NOT a family member. MAAZEL's approach was albeit mechanical and not fiery as Toscanini, but it was effective. Too bad for MAAZEL that he did not realize the antipathy was based on his lack of respect for others. Geniuses often are their own worst enemies. Bayreuth benefitted greatly in their presentations under his helm. I believe that his Wagner and Beethoven and Mahler music-making was him at his best and his recordings I believe will back me up. R.I.P. Maestro Lorin Maazel !!!

Jul. 14 2014 01:40 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

May he rest in peace.
Another great conductor gone this year. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see him conduct the NY Philharmonic at the NJPAC several years ago. He will be missed.

Jul. 14 2014 10:30 AM
John H. from Avon, CT

As with leader, it is quite difficult if not impossible for a conductor to be overly liked and also be successful. The most important thing for a conductor is to be respected. Being popular and overly liked often works to one’s detriment.

Maazel’s interpretations were based on a logic and rationale, not whimsy. If many disagreed, then so be it. In the least, his interpretations provoked critical thinking. I especially enjoyed listening to him directing music of Russian and French masters - his ability to achieve seamless flows in tempo and dynamics in contrast to the tiresome autonomic, metronome-like direction of this music by many other well known conductors. Maazel will be deeply missed. Fortunately for us, he leaves a wonderful recording legacy.

Jul. 14 2014 09:45 AM

Ouch! "... where, after retiring the Philharmonic, ..." -- I didn't realize that the Philharmonic had retired.

Also, the Pyongang link links (correctly) to the Pyongyang story. DD~~

Jul. 14 2014 03:15 AM
RodolfoL from New York

I was appalled to read few years ago in an important newspaper that there were musicians at the NY Philharmonic to which Maestro Maazel had never talked to during his time (2002-2009) with the orchestra. Is that really true?

Jul. 13 2014 11:45 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

The musical world has lost important members of a generation of conductors,with Maazel now joining the recently-deceased Abbado and Fruhbeck.One of his last efforts was a campaign against the excesses of Regietheater,with an eye to weeding out bad directors.It is to be hoped that improvement on this front will serve as part of his distinguished legacy.

Jul. 13 2014 07:01 PM

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