As Music Director Lorin Maazel’s tenure concluded at the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra was feeling the winds of change. It has a new music director, Alan Gilbert (the first native New Yorker to hold the position) who will select the successor to renowned former Principal Clarinetist Stanley Drucker, who retired after 60 years (which changed his appearance very little). Associate Principal Bassist Jon Deak is leaving to compose and to work with the orchestra’s education department. And Gary Parr has succeeded Paul Guenther, who was chairman of the board for 13 years.
But three monster concerts in June, each repeated at least twice, were a valedictory for Maazel, who at 79 cuts a trim, youthful figure. (Executive director Zarin Mehta, 70, says he doesn’t think of him as any particular age.) Maazel announced from the stage that he moves on “with a tranquil heart and good feelings”. Musical and astonishingly energetic on the podium, with a precise, assured baton, he doesn’t do anything flashy or idiosyncratic. He may not sweep audiences off their feet (except when he conducted Wagner’s Walkure at the Met last year), but he gives them the music.
His seven years at the Philharmonic have been busy. They included ten world premieres, the first of which was On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned from John Adams after the attack on the World Trade Center. He led far-ranging tours, including last year’s to Pyongyang, North Korea, the first appearance there of an American orchestra. And he has now hired 25% of the orchestra’s members. The Philharmonic has released downloads of the complete Mahler symphonies led by Maazel (nyphil.org/maazelmahler) and an online tribute to him, and there is an exhibit in the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Maazel’s unexpected appointment in 2002 initially caused rumblings from pockets of Riccardo Muti’s supporters in and around the orchestra, but those subsided, and musicians— at least the principals quoted in the program booklet—praise Maazel highly. With formidable skills at organization, he shouldered a heavy concert schedule and, Mehta says, answers email promptly and is an “urbane” dinner companion. Mehta sees him as a peacekeeper—besides the cultural politics of the Pyongyang concert, there have been no internecine wars.
In that last department, things could have gone much worse: remember how New York treated the tenures of Leonard Bernstein (figurative tomatoes thrown by critics) and Pierre Boulez (figurative tomatoes thrown by subscribers). Consider the private slip-ups of Dmitri Mitropoulos and James Levine, handled quietly behind the scenes, or the abrasive relations that pushed Kurt Masur toward the door. If in the future, few concertgoers brag to their grandchildren that they heard Maazel (the way oldsters do about Toscanini and Monteux), Maazel—who capably conducts a broad spectrum of musical works—has firstclass instincts and does not throw tantrums or batons and has been a skillful peacekeeper.
Two of his three epic final concerts used chorus, children’s chorus, and ancillary ensembles. Ten minutes before Benjamin Britten’s heartrending 1962 War Requiem began, the stage of Avery Fisher Hall was already filled with performers, and it kept getting fuller. Stage side doors were opened, and sound would come from outside them.
Britten was a pacifist. Nothing in the classical repertory is like this Requiem, which interpolates into the Latin Mass for the Dead poetry by Wilfred Owen, a British soldier killed a week before the end of World War I. Not a word glorifies war; instead of stirring marches, fife and drum, or ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, the death knell is clanged by rugged percussion. While the poetry speaks of “war and the pity of war”, the music pointedly avoids the idea that war solves anything. It is pervaded by tritones, the paradigm of conflict and the antithesis of resolution. Neither do disturbing, strangely beautiful whole tones strain to resolve anything.
Soprano Nancy Gustafson and the chorus sang the sacred Latin liturgy with noble radiance, while on the earthly side of the stage, tenor Vale Rideout and baritone Ian Greenlaw were soldiers singing Owen’s searing lines, among them, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” Joseph Flummerfelt oversaw preparation of combined local choruses, each with its own director. It is sometimes described as Britten’s greatest work after Peter Grimes, and there was not a sound from the audience for almost an hour and a half.
Row V in Avery Fisher Hall is not far back, but it still was hard to see the children from there, and also the chamber orchestra, which faced away from the audience so its conductor, Lionel Bringuier, could face Maazel. The chamber orchestra sounded distant, but distance is emblematic of Maazel’s calm professionalism. He perceives the passion but displays what’s written without insinuating its effect on him or his mission to guide listeners into it. He’s himself, you’re you, and the music is a river viewed from opposite banks.
The second program consisted of two pieces composed by Maazel, the brief Monaco Fanfares and the retro-new Farewells (to the 20th Century), followed by Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2. Asked why that particular symphony had been selected, the composer Paul Moravec, who gave an introductory talk, said he hadn’t the faintest idea.
The performance, however, made the reason clear: Maazel played the pants off the Sibelius. Listeners who distracted themselves with bored-audience activities during Maazel’s pieces were closely attentive to the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument with perfect clarity, rosy string pizzicato, phrases that grew in intensity, dramatic dynamics, and soft suspense that began the finale’s building process. Maazel created an interpretation the audience could grasp and agree with; he knew he could, and that’s why he chose the piece.
The audience was on its feet cheering, and Maazel—who used no score, though he had one for his own pieces—walked offstage looking not confident as usual, but bent and drained, like Bernstein, who always gave all he had.
Maazel’s own compositions, which preceded the Sibelius, seem to be performed most often when he leaves a position. The brief fanfare is cute, while Farewells is jumpy, with heavy orchestration that took 18 lines to list in the program (the Sibelius orchestration took four). Not complex or serial, it went on its way with much range and full use of everything, including Wagner tubas. Composed in 1999, it survives as a reminder of Y2K fears.
Mahler’s giant Symphony No. 8—the final program—is called Symphony of a Thousand but is usually performed with fewer than 400, which seems like plenty. (The stage was extended about seven rows into the audience.) It is unwieldy and draining for all forces but nevertheless has had no dearth of New York performances. James Levine opened the Boston Symphony’s New York season with it a couple of years ago, and the Staatskapelle Berlin played it as part of a full Mahler cycle at Carnegie Hall [this issue].
Maazel led four consecutive performances, the second broadcast on radio around the country. Lasting almost an hour and a half, it is some kind of marathon, beginning in the state of ecstasy where other works conclude. The first of its two movements is an expansion of the Pentecostal text, ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’; the second is a weak narrative based on the final scene from Goethe’s Faust that increases in musical intensity as Faust and Gretchen make their separate ways up the metaphorical ladder to heaven, with treble voices sparkling as they do in Symphony No. 4. An orgy of bombast, the Eighth is so over-the-top rich that the impulse to wallow in it again the next night on the home radio, printed words in hand, was irresistible.
Maazel drove it ably without mannerism or histrionics. Christine Brewer as Magna Peccatrix had the right force, along with a fabulous (as usual) high pianissimo at the end. Mezzo Mary Phillips had the right strength too, though Maazel (and Mahler) held the orchestra back. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Doctor Marianus had a good voice but a dreadful English accent in German. Bass Wolfgang Schone was Pater Ecstaticus, and bass-baritone Jason Grant Pater Profundus. Jeanine De Bique sang the vocally stratospheric Mater Gloriosa from one balcony, opposite a brass choir in another.
The combined choruses—New York Choral Artists directed by Joseph Flummerfelt, Dessoff Symphonic Choir directed by James Bagwell, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus directed by Diane Berkun—sounded well trained but unintelligible. (Word sheets plus titles minimized articulation problems.)
Guenther read a mayoral proclamation, a plaque was presented to Maazel, et cetera. He’s earned them.