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TV Preview: 'Maazel's strong hand quickly evident in N.Y. Philharmonic post

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

Lorin Maazel has never failed to set his mark, quickly and decisively, on anything he does.

For tonight’s concert by the New York Philharmonic, to be telecast live, Lorin Maazel has chosen an all-Gershwin program, because he wants to reinforce the American cultural heritage. (Chris Lee, New York Philharmonic)


"All-Gershwin New Year's Eve Concert"

dot.gif Featuring: Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic

dot.gif When: Tonight at 8 on WQED

And so he has at the New York Philharmonic, where he took over as music director in September. As early as Oct. 20, New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote, "In just three programs (a total of 12 concerts) Maazel has put his powerful imprint on the orchestra." Change is already evident, and at 8 tonight, local music lovers may hear it for themselves, when "Live From Lincoln Center" presents Maazel and the Philharmonic in a New Year's Eve concert televised nationally on PBS.

One notable change is the program itself: an all-Gershwin concert including the "Cuban Overture," "An American in Paris" and extended excerpts from "Porgy and Bess." Maazel says that "in Europe, it's traditional to play Johann Strauss. Everyone loves Strauss waltzes, of course, but they're part of the Austrian culture. I want to reinforce our American cultural heritage, and Gershwin is more appropriate."

Maazel, who was music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1988-96, is obviously happy about his appointment, but he refuses to call it a pinnacle. "Pinnacles can be very scary," he says. "It's sharp, cold and high up there. I'd rather say it seemed like the right decision at the right time. The orchestra has a lot of young people in it. Young people need guidance, and I like to think I have the background and experience to help them.

"We've accomplished a lot in a brief time," he says. "It's because of my experience and my take-charge approach, but also so far, temperamentally, we fit together. The players are very professional, no-nonsense, but they also have a sense of humor, a light touch. They're sophisticated urban people; they enjoy life. They have an immense repertory. They're at home with anything you throw at them."

He adds that "their hard-boiled reputation just isn't true, but because they're such professionals, they lose patience with mediocrity because they have such a great sense of pride in their work."

"I don't have to correct them very much. Each player knows best what he can be doing better. I leave it to individual players to correct things on their own."

Similarly, the New York public is tough but perceptive. According to Maazel, "they expect for something to be happening on stage. They have a low boredom threshold. If you're not doing something that's interesting, they'll start clearing their throats audibly, they'll rustle their candy wrappers, or just get up and walk out. The name of the game is to bring music to life."

The wild card seems to be the New York critics, more specifically The New York Times critics, who have often been openly hostile toward Maazel. In a recent interview in Hong Kong on tour with the Philharmonic, the conductor said that some critics had already "taken positions." Indeed, Tommasini qualified his comment about Maazel's "powerful imprint" by calling it "both impressive and worrisome." He called Maazel's initial performances "brilliant, but in a flashy way, and almost devoid of spontaneity."

After opening night in New York, Tommasini wrote, "Mr. Maazel's technical command has usually involved a trade-off. His performances can be oddly willful, as if just because he has such ready control, he can't help exercising it." And, historically, it hasn't only been Tommasini. Maazel's Pittsburgh Symphony concerts in New York were typically reviewed with harshness and lack of sympathy for his style.

For his part, Maazel says: "We move on. Everything is in flux. People who write may have agendas of their own before I do anything. It falls into place in due time. My credentials will not be challenged. I'll eventually be accepted for what I am by these pockets of skepticism."

Maazel does not plan to take up residence in New York. Rather than buying an apartment, he has arranged for temporary living quarters during the periods he will be there. He looks forward to getting back to his family and having time to compose at his farm in Virginia.

He is writing an opera based on George Orwell's "1984" to be premiered in 2005 at a major European opera house. He won't divulge yet which one.

"It's a terrifying subject," says Maazel. "I took the option on this novel long before 9/11, but it has taken on added relevance; 1984 is happening all around us now. But I'm not writing this to make a statement. In the heart of the libretto [by Yale poet J.D. McClatchey] is an incredible love story."

Other irons in Maazel's fire include a weekend of concerts with the Pittsburgh Symphony in February 2004, as well as the important Maazel/Vilar Conductor's Competition, financed in large part by arts philanthropist and Maazel devotee Alberto Vilar.

Maazel praises the 2002 winners: a Chinese woman named Xian Xhang and a Thai man, Bundit Ungransee.

"We must have the largest database in the world of young aspiring conductors," he says. "There will be jobs for them because of their fantastic musical potential."

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