An Interview with Lorin Maazel – Conducting, Composing … Casablanca!

Written by: Colin Anderson

On the eve of his final season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel brings this eminent Orchestra to BBC Proms 2008 for two concerts. The 2008-09 season also signals the 50th-year since Maazel first worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra. In addition to being internationally renowned as a conductor, Lorin Maazel is also a composer … and he reveals a Casablanca-related catastrophe!

Lorin Maazel

I had arrived early, as advised by Lorin Maazel’s representatives, just in case the rehearsal finished ahead of schedule. It did – by a whole hour! But, then, with well-aimed words and equally unambiguous conducting gestures, Brahms’s Symphony No.1, even at this first rehearsal, had seemed unusually well-honed and virtually-ready to go the following night in the Royal Festival Hall to begin Maazel’s three-concert Brahms cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra. At 12.30, the maestro had indicated that enough had been done. ‘See you in two hours’ was the basic directive, with a particular glance at the trombone section that 2.30 did indeed mean 2.30. Nodding heads! Had these musicians arrived a little late that morning, I wondered (not that they were needed until the symphony’s finale)? Come the afternoon session, Maazel returning at 2.29, every member of the Philharmonia was in place and tuned. I reckon, when I departed at 3.20, just as the third movement of Brahms’s Second Symphony was being scrutinised, that the musicians would be going home no later than 4 o’clock, 90 minutes to the good.

This was 24 June 2008. The place is Henry Wood Hall, one of London’s most-used rehearsal and recording-session venues. I thought my luck was in when the first rehearsal finished early (that said I wanted to stay-on for the afternoon one). So I introduced myself to Lorin Maazel (I had spoken, very briefly, to him a couple of times years ago – trying to arrange an interview!) with a sort of ‘I’m here, shall we start?’ hopefulness. “When shall I come and see you?” I asked despite fully realising that the obvious answer was the one he gave: “One thirty!” Yet his response was a disarming mix of courtesy and firmness with an ironic inflexion to his voice (which I translate as ‘nice try!’) and a smile. He then explains that he is tired – which is no surprise given the demands of the last few weeks of the New York season and that he has probably more or less just got off a plane – and that he would welcome a rest before our scheduled meeting. I of course demur.

Lorin Maazel

But it’s a bit disconcerting, come the allotted hour, to find a note on his dressing-room door advising “Please do not disturb”! This can’t include me! (Can it?) So waiting until the second-hand of my watch has cued 1.30 I knock on the door, which gains an immediate “come in”. In fact Maestro Maazel is very generous with his time for I had virtually the whole of the hour-long lunch-break with him, during which his only sustenance was a bottle of mineral water.

With the Proms visit uppermost in my thoughts, I begin by suggesting to Lorin Maazel that he and the musicians of the New York Philharmonic have a very particular chemistry. “It’s an orchestra which has a great deal of pride in the performance and in the work that goes into preparing that performance. They have a very keen work-ethic that allows them to achieve the results that they do; they always come completely prepared to a rehearsal, even for a new work, and at the first rehearsal, they’re ready to go. That kind of quickness of mind and thorough preparation I find very conducive to productive work: I do not like to over-rehearse and since they are so well prepared we form a team.

“I have now done six seasons with the New York Philharmonic, and I have one more. I hardly have to say anything because the musicians are so responsive to every gesture. I feel that my efforts are being seconded and they feel very confident in my trust in them – if a player is confident then he or she gives of his or her best and can concentrate on intonation, beauty of sound and cohesion. They know I care about them and can technically put them at their ease – they always know where they are. This means we can offer a great deal of music very well prepared and effortlessly.”

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (1858-1924)

Those last few weeks of the most-recent New York season had included The Ring Without Words (Maazel’s orchestral adaptation of Wagner’s operatic tetralogy), Puccini’s Tosca and symphonies by Mahler (No.9) and Bruckner (No.8) – “an incredible number of notes in a very short time and nothing sounded frayed or unprepared, which it wasn’t”. All of these New York programmes (and the Philharmonia’s Brahms concerts) are reviewed on this site. I confess to Maazel that I am a reviewer – an honest one, though, only interested in the music. “I should hope so! Most people who appear in public expect justice. But there is no justice in this world. When one is criticised negatively it can be for personal reasons. We never understand why the folks out there don’t like what we do and why criticism can become aggressive and personal. We’re not personal or aggressive, we just go out there and do our job”. However, that New York finale did look a bit scary repertoire-wise! “The musicians have the energy and pride to meet a challenge of that nature. And so do I. Still!”

An undated photograph of Lorin Maazel. Photograph: AP Photo/New York Philharmonic Archives

“Still” is a reference to the fact that Lorin Maazel is now not far away from 80 (he was born on 6 March 1930). But this is a mere statistic. He currently holds three music directorships – in addition to the New York Philharmonic, he occupies positions with the Palau de les Arts opera house in Valencia and Associazione Symphonica Toscanini. It seems however – since the day in June that we met – that Maazel has decided not to renew his contract in Valencia (“I had the opportunity of selecting every member of the orchestra”) and he will therefore terminate his appointment in Spain concurrently with the one in New York. Another farewell from New York at this time will be principal clarinettist Stanley Drucker who at the end of the 2008-09 Season is “going to achieve a world-record; he will have been there 60 years when he retires.”

Things change, of course, and these two step-downs will be defining moments in the history of the New York Philharmonic. Maybe another one will be the imminent premiere of Steven Stucky’s Rhapsodies, a joint-commission from the NY Phil and the BBC, which will receive its World Premiere during the forthcoming Proms visit and then be played in Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center) to open the forthcoming New York Philharmonic season. “Well, Rhapsodies is minimalist to a certain extent, but there’s layer-on-layer type of writing. It’s a work that is colour-focussed creating a shimmer and intensity that is more sound-based than contrapuntal or even harmonic; it’s very effective.”

Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960)

Rhapsodies will enjoy the attention of the versatile New York Philharmonic, its musicians having “an insatiable appetite for music that reflects no doubt the broad spectrum of music directors the orchestra has had over the decades”. Those occupying the Music Director’s office in the last six decades prior to Maazel include Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta (“Maestro Mehta is coming to Valencia for The Ring”) and Kurt Masur. “The musicians are at home in almost every style and they try to be at home in every style. This matches my view as to what a professional musician must be able to do: that is to get inside the skin of composers of the most diverse cultural background. This is an orchestra that is totally unjudgmental; they give the newest music time before passing judgement.”

Staying with the Proms, I wonder whether people beyond these shores perceive this annual festival as something quintessentially British? “Yes, in a way, and in the best sense of the phrase. I remember the Cleveland Orchestra (Maazel was Music Director from 1972 to 1982) being absolutely horrified when an enthusiastic band of young men in the audience began to sing a B flat against the A that the oboist was giving to tune the orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra was not noted for its sense of humour, but the New York Philharmonic would have loved it; it’s a very sophisticated orchestra, but living in the ‘Big Apple’, could you be anything else?”. (Start placing your bets now on any encores the Philharmonic might bring to London: at a previous Proms appearance, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, another of his directorships, following pieces by Richard Strauss, William Schuman and Dvořák, Maazel offered Gershwin’s An American in Paris, 18 minutes or so, as an extra!)

So, here is Lorin Maazel, getting close to 80 and having first conducted over 70 years ago. Yes, 70. He hadn’t even reached being a teenager before wielding a baton. “A child more or less does what he’s led to do; I had a teacher who believed I had a conducting talent – I was very well prepared and knew scores by heart and could write them down. I also had a natural ability for communicating, technically and musically. Every talent – if it’s a true talent – shows up at a very early age. I had several advantages, such as parents who were not exploitative so I only gave five or six concerts a year and always in the summer; otherwise I went to school and had a normal child’s life. I wasn’t thinking about anything except enjoying what I was doing, doing it as well as I could and not wanting to disappoint my teacher. That was an entirely different world. I had no ambitions. The second advantage is that I learnt a lot of repertoire very early on, so when as a young man I came back to conducting I already had a repertoire-base of about forty works.

“I also discovered how temporal and without substance something called ‘fame’ is. I was very well known and then I was quite forgotten. When I decided to continue my work as a musician I was no longer fascinated by becoming famous, and that has stood me in good stead to this day. It’s an aspect of my profession that holds no interest, but it would have done had I not been through the mill already. I was able to deal with being known, which is something both meaningless and ephemeral.”

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) with his daughter

Nevertheless, although a juvenile pianist or violinist can make promising sounds on an instrument, a young potential conductor is not so fortunate. No ready-made orchestra! So, how did young Lorin make his conducting credentials known? “I was studying the violin, too, and I had studied the score of Afternoon of the Faun, of Debussy. My teacher said ‘I’ll play it on the piano and you conduct me’. He watched me conduct and was very impressed by my ability to communicate tempo and phrasing intuitively. So he put me forward for the Workers Project Administration Orchestra, something that the Democratic Party under Roosevelt had set up. There were ten million people unemployed after the Crash in 1929. Roosevelt came into office in 1932 and put several measures into force such as Social Security and numerous workers’ projects that were usually out in the fields or factories or building roads and bridges, priming the economy and helping the working man.

“One of the projects was the WPA Orchestra. A friend of my teacher was the music director of the orchestra in Los Angeles and asked if he could allow a 7-year-old boy to conduct Marche Slave of Tchaikovsky – I just got up and conducted it, and surprised the orchestra, my teacher and myself. I’d never stood in front of an orchestra but it seemed like the most natural thing to do. It seems so far away – and it is a long time ago!”

The hanging in Victory Square (Act 1 Scene 4) of Lorin Maazel's 1984. Photograph:

Although he has now conducted most of the repertoire with the world’s great orchestras and in the most celebrated opera houses (operatically only Berg’s Wozzeck and Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame have eluded him), as well as having built a substantial discography (from the 1950s onwards), Lorin Maazel remains fascinated by composing. “Basically I was trained as a composer not as a conductor. I went through a very tough regime of writing fugues and passacaglias. I was really put through the hoop by a very demanding harmony and counterpoint teacher – to whom I shall always be grateful. He said ‘you may know how to wave your arms around, young man, but you don’t know anything about music and how it’s put together: write me ten fugues’. It was an incredible training and I began to think very seriously about composing but I lost all confidence in myself because having this interaction with the Beethovens, Mozarts and Bartóks of the world I would compare my efforts with the masterpieces with which I was dealing every day as a conductor; it completely stunted me. There’s so much mediocre music out there, so why add to it?

Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s Festive Overture in 2005. Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito

“This kept me from writing music seriously for decades. It wasn’t until Rostropovich came along and heard something of mine, which I thought inconsequential. He said that he had heard a fine composer and would I write him something. I said I didn’t think I was up to it. ‘You write it, I’ll play it’, was his response. I wrote it and he told me of the 105 pieces he had commissioned it was right up there with some others, which includes Britten’s Cello Symphony. I was very flattered. I began to realise that I had been dammed-up for decades and I then had a great desire to really express myself in the field that I am probably most qualified in, composition.

The work for Rostropovich was Music for Cello and Orchestra, one of three Music for… pieces for a solo instrument and orchestra, the others being for flute (written for James Galway) and for violin. “The title is simply to define the nature of the music; I am an equal-rights composer!”. In April 2009 (on the 2nd, 5th and 7th) in the Royal Festival Hall, London, Lorin Maazel conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in three concerts to celebrate the 50th-anniversary since he first worked with it. There will be a Music for… piece in each concert; Julia Fischer plays the Violin work, Galway returns to the Flute piece, and Han-Na Chang essays the Cello score that Rostropovich inspired. Other works in these concerts include the fifth symphonies of Sibelius and Shostakovich and music by Fauré, Rossini, Dukas, Ravel and Richard Strauss. If RCA 09026 68789-2 remains available (the CD was issued 10 years ago) then all three Music for… pieces are recorded thereon.

I wonder, when Maazel is composing, if he shuts-out the (practical) conductor in him? “I wish I would do that! Some of the music I write is very difficult to conduct. I curse myself out when I have to conduct it. I don’t write anything I don’t hear; if I hear it in a given way that’s the way I write it down and I expect whoever is performing it to deal with it as it is. I’m not very enthusiastic about performing my music; I will do it, but the problem is I am much too close to the music emotionally to have the objectivity that performers need to help the composer. If I am conducting my own music it’s rather embarrassing to admit that I couldn’t write everything into the score – no-one can of course – because every time I finish a score I think there’s nothing more to do: all we have to do is play it the way it is written, which of course is nonsense, and by the second bar you already realise that there is a need for an interpreter. So then I dismiss the composer – what does he know! – and take charge as a conductor and then it comes together.

Lorin Maazel

“It is psychologically astonishing to hear music played that you have written. I used to write little plays and I couldn’t believe that actors were speaking lines that I had written – to hear people laugh at the right time! – and to hear lines that have come from within you but you are now not articulating. I recall the first rehearsals of 1984 at Covent Garden; I was kind of mute. Here were people singing and playing my music and I was totally ineffective; as a conductor I should have been doing things and wasn’t doing anything except stupidly nodding my head. I’m getting used to it though.” (1984 is available on a Decca DVD.)

Is there anything currently brewing in Lorin Maazel’s composing stocks? “I do have a major project in mind but I got side-tracked; someone must have discovered what my Achilles Heel is – and that is a desire to write a film score: I want to write one before I finish. Out of the blue – I suppose because I went to Pyongyang (with the New York Philharmonic) and I got associated in the public mind with things Korean – I have been asked to write a soundtrack for a film set during the Korean War as seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old Korean boy who loses his parents. It’s a very tragic and brutal story but with a happy ending. He’s found by American soldiers who adopt him and take him back to the States.” (Since meeting him, I have been advised that Mr Maazel’s participation in this film, provisionally entitled Soldier Boy, is now uncertain given that its production has been delayed until mid-2009 at the earliest.)

Nevertheless, if and when the film is made, and whether Mr Maazel writes its music, his comments on the composing process remain interesting. “This amuses me enormously as I don’t know anything about writing film music, but I’ll learn how to do it. I’m thinking that the score might be a sound-picture of those times; I was 18 then (at the time of the Korean War) and I knew all the pop music of the day, Dinah Shore singing to the troops”. (Mr Maazel told me that the film’s making was intended for September to November this year, 2008.) “I have a full schedule, so I’ll have to write the music as I did for 1984 – between the hours of five to seven every morning. It’s not that I’m very disciplined but I am very stubborn – and being stubborn has got me this far!” He takes his energy from “passing on to young people what I have learnt over the many decades of my life. I have a festival on my farm in Virginia, which is really about mentoring and we do chamber-opera there, so far only by Benjamin Britten. I find it stimulating and motivating.”

Glenn Miller

Maazel’s “full schedule” include numerous weeks in New York next season for concerts that include Richard Strauss’s Elektra, Mahler’s Symphony No.8 and his own Farewells (written for the Vienna Philharmonic). (Stanley Drucker has a solo spot with Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto.) Also six of the subscription programmes will include J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, music that is now far less the preserve of symphony orchestras and much more vehicles for ‘authentic’ ensembles … “so-called! That’s the point I keep making: no one has a clue as to how the music really sounded and was played. I draw a parallel with big-band music; I grew up with Harry James and Glenn Miller. Fifty years later they brought the big-band back including some of the original players who were then in their eighties but they couldn’t recreate the sounds despite the fact that the big bands were recorded. There is a time, a place and a sound; so to presume that we know how a piece of music was played by any given interpreter is nonsense.

Stanley Drucker. Photograph: &

“My teacher was a Bach fanatic and he had me playing Bach sonatas and partitas when I was eight, nine, ten. He kept telling me that Bach was ‘the source’ and he tried to look for musical values in this music – and they’re not hard to find; Bach was an extremely passionate composer. There were some wonderfully exotic, existentialist, surrealist Bach fugues and passacaglias from the last century – Stokowski arrangements and Mengelberg – and they have their place. Bach survives any sort of treatment, and I hope he will survive my treatment, but I see no reason why playing out-of-tune makes the music more interesting. It’s such a scam, because you’ll see these old instruments looking very pretty and the musicians playing them looking extremely prophetic but they’re using modern strings, so you have already defeated the purpose of the whole exercise.”

Maestro Maazel’s website makes mention that he is a ‘classic film’ buff. I nominate Casablanca as my favourite. “Don’t mention Casablanca to me! At one point I wanted to collect old cars, but never got around to it because I don’t have the time to pursue hobbies. You can imagine my [excitement] when the car – I believe it was a Pontiac, very recognisable with Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart – came up for sale. It was auctioned the day after I read about it and it sold for 6,000 dollars, meaning that I could have had that car for 6,200 in my garage for the rest of my life – it’s a blow that I have barely recovered from! Oh dear! Play it again, Sam!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share This
Skip to content