The late Lorin Maazel of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra seemed a maestro very likely to intimidate musicians. But many on this side of the globe would still welcome a close encounter with a conductor of his fame.
Back in 2006, Maazel found himself getting reacquainted with a changed Taipei after 15 years. The “consummate musical technician” arrived on the island to “inspire the musicians” of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) of Taiwan and to get them “to make music in a meaningful and inspired way.”
Of what the NSO regarded as a milestone-setting experience, American conductor Maazel said: “This will be a celebration of music at a high level and I will do my best to see to it that it will be so.”
The then 76-year-old Maazel, who brought the Pittsburgh Orchestra to Taipei on his previous visit, wanted to give the local musicians, represented mainly by two Taiwanese concertmasters that rehearsal day in March, a good reason to feel undaunted by such professional meeting with somebody of his stature. Still the two had their nervous moments in front of the critical Maazel.
He, whose relationship with the orchestras he had worked with was not always smooth, said: “In the beginning of my career, I worked with orchestras which were not well-known. I learned a great deal from interacting with young, talented musicians. Basically I discovered that the secret of a good relationship with orchestras – the world-famous, the top five and even the second-tier orchestras – was a question of mutual respect.”
Maazel, also a violinist, went on: “I respect every musician in the orchestra. I myself also play an instrument.”
Maazel – remembered for his legendary memory for scores – spoke of his expectations: “A performance is not just about bringing out a series of notes in a competent fashion. It is about bringing out what lies behind the notes in the composer’s mind. It is the artist’s obligation to read the inner voice of the composer.”
The Taiwan concert program with Maazel that year included Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet” & Violin Concerto. Mussorgsky/Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was likewise in the repertoire, which Maazel said he “put together to show the brilliance of the orchestra in a hall with wonderful acoustics.”
Inviting the world-famous Maazel to conduct the NSO as a high point of the Taipei orchestra’s 20th anniversary celebration that year had been the talk of the music circle for several months. Word had even gone around that such unprecedented collaboration with the orchestra entailed a fee of about NT$10 million (about US$330,000). Maazel conducted the NSO at two concerts and gave a master class earlier.
As for how he would actually proceed with the local orchestra, Maazel said: “First thing I will do is I will look. Then they will look. Bit by bit, as we speak the language of music, we will become musical friends to be able to come up with something meaningful to the orchestra and also to the audience.”
Of leading a superb orchestra like the New York Philharmonic, Maazel put it this way: “Giving and taking – that is the ideal way of making music.” He even remarked: “The New York Philharmonic will still be the New York Philharmonic – one of the finest orchestras – without me.”
Working with “the orchestra known for such awesome technicality and professionalism” had been “a high point of my life,” according to Maazel, the son of a musician. He was given the job of music director when he was already 70. He succeeded Kurt Masur, who was the first conductor to bring the New York Philharmonic to Taiwan.
Maazel, who first conducted the New York Philharmonic at the age of 11, described the orchestra as having “clear sound picture and great technique.” Maazel communicated with the musicians with minimal gesture. The orchestra reacted quickly to musical concepts, he added.
His relationship with the New York Philharmonic was one “in which we can make music happily.”
He similarly recalled: “From the first day, they realized that I had the greatest confidence in them. And they returned that to me.”
Maazel’s contract with the orchestra ended in 2010. Maazel remarked during his Taipei visit in 2006 that he had no intention of renewing it. The orchestra under him made big headlines when it toured Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2008. Maazel had other plans. In fact, he went on to launch his own music festival in his estate in Castleton, Virginia.
The Castleton Festival presented “Tribute Performance to the Late Maestro Maazel” last July 12, just a year after the passing of Maazel on July 13, 2014. The program included Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” with “Ode to Joy” sung in celebration of Maazel’s very successful although sometimes controversial life.
The world premiere of Maazel’s half-finished composition was a program highlight to remind the public that Maazel was also a composer. He composed previously for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and for flutist James Galway. A fragment of his half-done piece, 16 pages he worked on before his death, had to be finished by American composer Wayne Oquin in time for Maazel’s first death anniversary concert. It was given the title “Echoes of a Solitary Voice.”