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Honoring the maestro

PSO gala celebrates Maazel at 70

Tuesday, December 05, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

A conductor is supposed to command attention by the very definition of the position. If orchestra members aren't looking at the podium presence, someone isn't doing an effective job.

(Dan Marsula, Post-Gazette)

Lorin Maazel, however, always has been a conductor who demands attention. From his years as a child prodigy to his tenures leading some of the great orchestras, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1988-96, he has made a mark on music history. Not every musician has loved his tough style, but Maazel's impact on the musical world through weighty interpretations of the classics has been undeniable.

Among his highlights with the PSO, he furthered its international reputation with tours, including those to the prestigious Salzburg and Edinburgh festivals, and to South America and Israel. He also hired 37 new musicians, by most accounts raising the quality of the orchestra.

It's been almost five years since he last conducted the PSO (though he heard them in Salzburg in 1999), enough reason alone for a gala concert. But tonight's affair is part of a worldwide celebration of the conductor, composer and violinist's 70th birthday year.

And Maazel hasn't wasted a day in those 70 years. He worked hard in his youth here in Pittsburgh, honing a talent that led Leopold Stokowski to call him "the prodigy of the century." Maazel was conducting scores by memory before his age hit the double digits, and playing violin prodigiously, too. He went on to construct some of the century's finest interpretations of musical works, especially large and complex ones.

Talking to him over the phone several weeks ago from his idyllic farm in northern Virginia, it's obvious Maazel is relaxed and enjoying his life. He's lived there for almost 15 years with Dietlinde Maazel Turbin, his wife, and his three children, 12, 10 and 8.

He's also energized, as he continues to explore the compositional side of his musical prowess. Tonight's concert will feature his "The Giving Tree" for cello, narrator and orchestra, and there's an opera in the works. Lots to do still -- and it surely will grab attention.


Pittsburgh Symphony

"Maazel at Seventy"

Featuring: Lorin Maazel, conductor; Anne Martindale Williams, cello;

Dietlinde Maazel, narrator.

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 7:30 tonight.

Tickets: $100 (benefit performance with reception); 412-392-4832


Q: I read a story about how you transformed a garage on your farm into a crafts center for your children, and that you were looking forward to making pots, too. Have you gotten to it?

A: [Laughs.] We've done a lot of other things -- I haven't made any pots. We've fashioned this estate after our own predilections. Since our family is sort of sports oriented, we play a lot of tennis and bike a lot and play with our amazing animals. We have emus, llamas and zebras, plus the usual farm animals -- we have 150 head of cattle and we have horses and so forth. So, you know, we have things to do.

Q: Do you need a special veterinarian to help with the zebras and emus?

A: We check them out before we buy them and have people on the farm who help, but we're pretty much able to do it ourselves if we have to. And I have three children here that are very experienced as farm children, and they help a lot.

Q: What's it like to be back in Pittsburgh after five years?

I have nothing but fuzzy feelings and happy memories of my stay there. Made lots of good friends and there was a lot of good music-making along the way.

Q: This event is part of a sort of victory tour for you, isn't it?

A: This is something called "Maazel at Seventy" -- you'll excuse the pretentiousness of that title -- in which 13 orchestras have participated. These orchestras include the Concertgebouw, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. I am taking my symphony orchestra of the Bavarian Radio to Japan, where we are giving nine concerts, three of which will be in Century Hall, the Carnegie Hall of Tokyo, called the "Maazel at Seventy Festival." A good bit of my music will be played -- I am even playing a piece of mine on the violin. We will repeat that very program in Carnegie Hall.

Q: Tell me about your piece that is going to be performed here, "The Giving Tree."

A: I am very interested in filling what I feel is a void, that is narrated legends or stories for young people, and also adults, with orchestra. The only piece that has really taken hold is "Peter and the Wolf" and the subject matter is pretty primitive. So I have done two pieces in this genre, "The Giving Tree" and something called "The Empty Pot," which is a Chinese legend. "The Giving Tree" is by Shel Silverstein, who passed away recently -- a marvelous poet and illustrator. I read so many of these stories to my children, I suppose that's how it all came about. One day I thought, this story is really intriguing, so well told, maybe I will set it to music and it has turned out to be quite successful. It has never been recorded commercially, but at some point I may have it done.

Q: You have always composed, right?


1930 -- Born in Paris on March 6.
1934 -- Family discovers Maazel has perfect pitch and a photographic memory; next year he begins violin and piano lessons.
1938 -- Studies conducting with Vladimir Bakaleinikoff.
1939 -- Moves to Pittsburgh's East End with family. Conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 9 with Leopold Stokowski, who calls Maazel "the prodigy of the century."
1941 -- Toscanini invites Maazel to conduct the NBC Symphony.
1943 -- Debuts with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
1944 -- Conducts his first PSO subscription concert.
1945 -- Enrolls in the University of Pittsburgh at age 15. Graduates in 1954.
1949-51 -- Serves as apprentice conductor and violinist with the PSO. Founds the Fine Arts Quartet of Pittsburgh.
1960 -- Becomes the first American and the youngest conductor ever to conduct at Bayreuth.
1965-71 -- Serves as music director of Deutsche Oper Berlin.
1972-82 -- Holds position of music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.
1982-84 -- Becomes the first American to be general manager and artistic director of the Vienna State Opera.
1984 -- Becomes music consultant to the PSO after Andre Previn's tenure.
1988-96 -- Music director of the PSO.
1992 -- Wins a Grammy with the PSO for a recording with Yo Yo Ma; becomes music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
1996 -- Leads PSO centennial tours to Washington, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, then to eight European countries and Israel.
1998 -- RCA Victor releases CD of Maazel own compositions, featuring Mstislav Rostropovich and James Galway.

Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic


A: Right, though there was a long stretch there where I just didn't have the time, the motivation or the self-confidence -- basically the self-confidence. But now I am off and running and trying not to look over my shoulder and be too severe on what I do. I just write it and hope for the best.

Q: One place that I think of you as being always self-confident is conducting. How many classical pieces do you have in your head right now?

A: It's about 500 or so. But that's a lifetime, it's nothing to be surprised at. I have done a lot of studying in my life ... so it more or less stays with me. I can pick up a lot of repertoire very quickly.

Q: When you were here you rebuilt the orchestra. Did you have a model in mind when you were bringing in new members, or were you concerned with bringing in the best people?

A: I was just looking for the best people. Without noticing it, one does fashion a sound picture based on that inner concept of sound. You are making judgments at every rehearsal. ... I suppose that sound has been very affected by the many years I've spent conducting European orchestras.

Q: What were the reasons that you decided to leave the Pittsburgh Symphony?

A: I had a mission to fulfill, a mandate given to me from the board: Help us rebuild this orchestra. Though I already found it an excellent orchestra. Andre [Previn] had done an excellent job. But I suppose there is always room for improvement. At a certain point I felt I had done what I could do. Being a music director is very time consuming and I thought at the time that I would like to conduct more opera, so I accepted a position with the Bavarian Radio where I wouldn't have administrative responsibilities. I would just basically conduct. That's worked out very well, and given me the freedom to do more at Salzburg.

Q: I saw elsewhere that you've conducted 130 orchestras across the world.

A: Yeah, it's now 150. I have conducted a lot of young orchestras recently. That really interests me, making contact with a new generation of young musicians. It's great fun. But I am going to be conducting less because of this opera I have to have ready by 2003 -- George Orwell's "1984." It's a tremendous challenge and a great book, and I'm so looking forward to it. That means I will be conducting a lot less.

Q: You are stepping down from the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, correct?

A: The end of 2002, though they are going on a world tour in spring 2003, which I will conduct as a guest.

Q: So it slows down, but only so much?

A: I will only be 73 then; I'll just be getting going. In the conceit of youth, I thought I was pretty good at 30. I suppose I wasn't too bad. ... But when I look back at my feeble efforts, sure I was technically right on top of my profession, but I hadn't yet learned how much I had to learn. It takes quite a long time before you become humble enough to realize that the profession is a learning process which never stops. If you really feel that way, then you'll move on. Otherwise you will solidify your own mediocrity.

Q: What do you think of the PSO now?

A: On the basis of what I heard in Salzburg, I think Mariss [Jansons] has done a sterling job, really great. I heard a splendid ["Ein Heldenleben"] -- really beautiful, focused and powerful. I thought, if that's a sign of what he's been doing and how the orchestra sounds, that must be good news. I understand that the recent [European] tour was a smashing success, so I am really happy for them.

Q: You were a musical child prodigy, so why did you study philosophy in school instead of music?

A: One part of my brain said, you've had a career as a musician and now it's time to move on [laughs]. I was thinking of becoming a writer, but the imperative of music you can't resist. So I was dragged back into music through circumstances not really quite sure this is what I wanted to do. There was a lot of denying to myself that I really loved doing what I was doing, so I pursued this funny idea that I was going to write novels.

Q: Have you visited Pittsburgh much since you left the position here?

A: No, really. When my mother was still alive, I went to visit several times. But then she passed on a few years ago. My father's still alive; he's living with us down here in Virginia. In fact, we built a house for him and he's having a marvelous time. It's really cozy.

Q: There are some new things, not the least being new football and baseball stadiums.

A: [Laughs.] I am sure there are no Pittsburghers left who can still remember Ralph Kiner playing at Forbes Field. I was at the game. Sometimes, when I passed where Forbes Field used to be I thought of the so-called good old days and had a good chuckle.

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