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The prime of Mr. Maazel

The 71-year-old Pittsburgher triumphs in Bavaria and prepares to lead the New York Philharmonic

Tuesday, August 07, 2001

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

SALZBURG, Austria -- There's no question that Lorin Maazel is in prime form.

Lorin Maazel, who directed the Pittsburgh Symphony at Heinz Hall from 1988 to 1996, won accolades for his directing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Bruckner's Seventh Symphony at the Salzburg Festival. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

He scored still another triumph with the Bavarian Radio Symphony on tour in Salzburg's Grosse Festspielhaus last Wednesday. Critics and audience alike seemed to agree that the rendition of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony was as good as any of that difficult work could possibly be. The orchestra, which Maazel has led since 1993 and will leave after this season, is an ensemble of soloist caliber. Although there is said to have been a rift between these players and the conductor, the group did not fail to respond to Maazel's virtuoso baton work.

He has built this orchestra -- as he did with the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1988-96 -- into a first-rate ensemble. Coincidentally, Mariss Jansons, who replaced Maazel as music director in Pittsburgh, will follow Maazel as director of the Bavarian orchestra as well.

Maazel, a Pittsburgh native who turned 71 on March 6, is also physically fit, looking trimmer than ever as he enters his dressing room following an afternoon rehearsal. "Keeping fit," he says, "is a matter of coming to terms with stress, and the irregular life that artists have to deal with. You have to sort out a regime that counteracts the negative influences.

"I used to come home and reach for the Scotch bottle, or overeat. Now I've become philosophical. I don't fight it."

But he doesn't shy away from challenges either.

His appointment to succeed Kurt Masur as music director of the New York Philharmonic proves that.

"The New York Philharmonic was the last thing I had in mind," he says. "They didn't knock on my door [when they were searching for a new music director], simply because I had said at a press conference a few years ago that I would definitely not take another orchestra anyplace at any time for any reason.

"But my two weeks [as guest conductor] in New York changed that. They were so much fun to work with, so professional, so keen, they took so much pride in what they were doing, I felt so much at home with them."

What followed were negotiations that settled on a four-year contract, playing 10 weeks of subscription concerts the first season and 14 weeks for the next three seasons, as well as taking the orchestra on tour.

When asked whether he is still the highest-paid conductor in the world -- his salary is not disclosed but believed to be more than $1.5 million annually -- Maazel says, "Am I? I don't know." But he is quick to defend the high figures that performers of his level command.

"We earn our keep," he says. "The whole function of classical music is beneficial to the economy of the community. When the Bavarian Opera [in Munich] closed for a year, hundreds of business were affected -- restaurants, hotels, shops near the opera.

"Twenty years ago, a Vienna journalist said to me, 'We think it's outrageous what Luciano Pavarotti is being paid.' I answered, 'Mr. Pavarotti is not being paid a cent more than anyone else in the top category.' Have you ever heard in the free market of anyone paying one cent more than they wanted to?"

He points out, as an example, that the Vienna State Opera's budget is only 15 percent artistic. "Forty-five percent goes to retirement benefits, and the rest of it goes to the stagehands, the cleaning people. No one is going to come to the Vienna State Opera to see the cleaning people clean the stage, but we support them."

He believes his greatest challenge in New York will be "defining the role of a major symphony orchestra in a major city in a major country. There's a confusion over what a conductor should do In my mind, it's crystal clear."

The New York Times criticized the choice of Maazel as the New York Philharmonic's new music director, among other reasons, on grounds that his age and conservative tastes would not allow the orchestra to progress into the 21st century. Maazel answers this by saying, "There should be a recognition that the word 'museum' should not be a pejorative term in music, any more than it is in art. There are scores of premieres every month. Contemporary music has its own public. It's a healthy undertaking [but separate from that of a symphony orchestra]. Our job is to do for contemporary music just what we did for the classics: try to sift through everything that is being done and find the major talents. That is, of course, a question of taste."

What should an orchestra do? Maazel asks. Then he answers his own question:

"Play the classics superbly well, broaden the repertory to include the major works of the 20th century -- which is now gone -- and commission new works." While in Pittsburgh, Maazel practiced what he preaches, by starting a series (still ongoing) of concertos commissioned for the orchestra's first-desk players.

He says he is looking for a date to conduct a weekend or two with the Pittsburgh Symphony again.

Aside from that, "Next summer at this time I'm going to be surfing on the Barrier Reef!"

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