I wish I had thought of it first: “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” That was how the papers received Lorin Maazel’s death. And it’s a telling remark for anyone who reminisces about the conductor. Maazel was a genius who solved differential calculus problems for fun. He bored easily, was prone to arrogance, and it became his tendency to pull music around until it interested him again. This did not always work with audiences. At times the music could sound like an equation, itself.
I knew Maazel only through the Cleveland Orchestra, when I represented the Shaw Concerts conductors roster in the 1970s. Maazel hired numerous artists from our midst to play with the orchestra, and though I only shook hands once and met him twice, I learned about him from staff and performers. Maazel’s appeal always had to do with technical virtuosity merged with supercilious ego. At that young and unwise age, I was susceptible to the idea of excellence expressed as elegant superiority. That was my idea of cool…and Lorin Maazel supplied it in spades!
The first time I heard Maazel, in 1970, he was on a New York tour with the New Philharmonia of London. On the program were Delius’ Paris and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel. The Delius, a large Straussian piece from 1899, (and his best,I find) made me an aficionado for life, and Maazel’s way with it was tighter and more propulsive than Beecham’s. But it was his podium manner that captured attention. In later years he mellowed in many ways, but in his forties he behaved pretty much as below.
A lithe figure in those days, Maazel was always tilting back on his bigger downbeats, looking down arrogantly at the orchestra. If a cue were anticipated on the left, Maazel would be sure to lean the other way with a sly smile and then suddenly give it with the little finger behind his back. As Strauss’ music evoked the fearsome heaving breaths of Till’s prospective hanging, Maazel would step forward, swinging his arms until they stabbed the floor: left/right, left/right, left/right, left/right, RIGHT!! Maazel’s arms in those days were everywhere, like propellers on a Hindu God with too many. Sometimes, when there was less immediately present for him to do, he would hang his hands downward limply and swing them like a gorilla seeking relaxation. And that face! Never far from a smirk, Maazel gave every sign of trading in affectation. Late in life he stated openly on YouTube, and so mellowly that you scarcely sensed it coming, that he embodied the spirit of Mahler and really “was” Mahler. Earlier in his career, I note, he merely saw to it that his Cleveland Orchestra LPs carried a picture of him in profile looking like Mahler!
A passion for arrogance and virtuosic neurotic power may have to do with one’s theatrical sense of a concert under Maazel, but all of this would be moot, if the music making were not interesting. To his credit, Maazel enjoyed the edge repertory: Delius” Paris, D’Indy’s Second Symphony, Bax’ Tintagel, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. This last, recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic, is the best I’ve ever heard. Performing it in New York in those early seventies, Maazel was especially powerful in the first movement coda, stabbing the ground with his baton in that inimitable bending manner as the drums rolled upward against the brass. Other fabulous Maazel performances were an amazingly slow Mahler 7th, a powerful Karajan-like way with the Mahler Fifth, a tense Beethoven Fifth, a uniformly beautiful Mahler Third and anything by Strauss and Sibelius. Maazel could make Finlandia sound like a major piece of music. And he tended in those days to heave himself into the music so powerfully, that when the Sibelius Second ended, he would throw himself over the back podium railing with a sigh of exhaustion, dripping perspiration like a prize fighter waiting for his towel. This always got a good hand. As Maazel aged, the performances he gave in New York, certainly, seemed more and more phoned-in. In the early days he had more vitality. In later life, with a happier marriage, he gave signs of more benevolence. But his most exciting years were past, though the snarky Maazel was never far away.
Once, he tried to impress a staff member named Colleen backstage in Cleveland, stating that the slow movement of Schumann’s Second Symphony was the most beautiful since Beethoven. Then he stepped to the podium and performed the symphony. As he swept later into the Green Room, he turned his back to her and shouted over the crowd “Was I right!!?” He was always above the crowd…No conductor I have ever seen could project more coldness facing away from you.
Colleen later told me this was the least of it. You couldn’t keep Maazel waiting, it seems, or he would take it out on the orchestra. She cited the example of a Schumann Rhenish coldly performed with brusque throwaway gestures. The players got together to ask what happened. It turned out Mr. Maazel had been kept 5 minutes waiting stage left and resented it. So the music making was his tantrum.
It bears remembering that Maazel was installed by the Cleveland Board against the objections of the players, who wanted István Kertész, and that relations were always rocky. Maazel admitted this himself. George Szell had been a precisionist, with strings playing in strict time, strictly on the beat, strictly within the bar. Decades of this had eliminated some of the plangency even Szell noted was nice in Berlin and Amsterdam. But his Cleveland manager reminded him that he always refused to hire string players who played this freely, and Szell had to admit it was true.
Maazel was soon to become director of the Vienna State Opera, whose orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, had always been his ideal. And he had an entirely different idea for the Cleveland sound–the warm, fluid and flexible sonority that quickly emerged from his first season In Cleveland. I was happy with the change, though Cleveland had been so precise before, that something was definitely lost. Under George Szell one marvelled at Mozart that ticked like a clock. Now here we had our own Vienna Philharmonic in Cleveland. I found the similarity at times uncanny.
This sort of sea change had to have rubbed half the players the wrong way, those who truly believed in the Szell approach and had adopted it for 25 years. Another strong contingent felt doubtless liberated from Szell”s endless rehearsing. One recalls that Szell was berated by Toscanini for treating the NBC Symphony musicians like children during rehearsals and never invited back. The orchestra’s original choice, István Kertész, sadly drowned in 1972 off the coast of Israel, confused by a rip tide. But it is worth imagining that if he had managed to become Music Director, he, too would have changed the orchestra’s sound in a much warmer and more Bruno Walterish direction. Szell realized that only someone like Boulez or even Levine might maintain that sound. But it was not to be.
Around 1980, Cleveland hired Christof von Dohnányi, who steered the orchestra back to the Szell ideal sonority. But his performances, over time, began to seem like poor man’s Szell, and though he is now one of the elder statesmen, there was always a touch of Maazel like coldness and calculation to Von Dohnányi’s phrasing. For this reason, he is not so highly regarded as others like Charles Dutoit, Herbert Blomstedt, Stanislaus Skrowaczewski and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Currently, Franz Welser-Möst, not too popular himself at times and known to some as “Frankly worse than most” has taken the orchestra that much closer to the Szell ideal. So the Cleveland Orchestra now ticks like a clock again.
But Maazel moved on to years in opera, to France, to stewardship of Munich’s great Bavarian Radio Orchestra, to seven years in Pittsburgh and ten in New York. He blew it with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989 by assuming he would be chosen to succeed Karajan and cancelling all his engagements when he wasn’t. It was a fit of transparent pique. But Europe, I always felt, suited Maazel better, nonetheless. He was American, of course, but his natural tendency to florid manners seemed to suit the Viennese, whose every mid-level career comes with a wifely title. In a country of Frau Doktors, nobody found him over the top on New Years Day, overseeing the waltzes at the Philharmonic, even if to us he looked like a 1940s floor walker at Macy’s, oozing unctuous good cheer from every pore.
A nearly great man has died. And if we wonder why he fell short. I have a clue. Maazel appeared once, many decades ago, on the Dick Cavett show to play Jazz violin, which he did as wonderfully as Stephane Grappelli. But I found his appearance fascinating for another reason. Playing the violin on TV gives the viewers a good look at the violinist’s eyes. Behind all the polished manners of this man lay fear. And indeed, Maazel explained that he had been picked on by other boys for being the fat kid with a violin case. So perhaps Maazel the introvert compensated for his discomfort with a carefully designed choreography of clothing, manner, and the nose-in-air arrogance of being in the know.
In the 1970s word went out that Maazel had realized he was so disliked in general, that he had hired a PR firm to improve his image. This is about when PBS started using Maazel conducting in silhouette on their cultural program updates. I don’t know for certain that he hired Margaret Carson, but she was the publicist to use in those days. A Betty Davis figure with short hair and a Franklin Roosevelt cigarette holder, Carson was straight from central casting. “I suppose we need such people,” said Neville Marriner to me in distaste. Realizing that her “Michael T. T.”, as she biliously referred to our current SF Music Director, was prone to arrogance, talked endlessly and needed to learn his craft, she saw to it that Tilson-Thomas became conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Seven years of penance later, he became Music Director of the London Symphony.
What, if anything, Margaret Carson was able to do for Lorin Maazel has never been certain. He rose to the very top of his profession and stayed there. But somehow the genius schoolboy never left his personality. To the end, he wanted to impress with conducting contests and symphony marathons, as if music making were an Olympic event for his famous technique. It would have been better if he had thought more about conducting Mahler and less about trying to be him.