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The prodigy at 73: still very much in charge

May 14, 2003|Paul Lieberman

NEW YORK — "Lorin Maazel, phenomenal 9-year-old ... really dominated the Philharmonic.... The chubby little conductor ... came on the stage with a swing and determined vigor that gave evidence of his firm intention.... He held the orchestra every note of the way."

-- Los Angeles Times,

Sept. 7, 1939

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NEW YORK -- Asked his earliest memories of growing up in Los Angeles, Lorin Maazel, long shed of his baby fat at 73, offers two: being sent to the store with a quarter and overhearing his father take a phone call.

He was 6, he believes, when he went to the store by his parents Spanish-style bungalow, near Pico and La Cienega, and "came home with a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread and some eggs, and I had one penny left over to buy some candy. It's unbelievable," recalls Maazel, who these days earns about 8 million quarters for his night job alone.

The phone call carried good news to his father, Lincoln, who was pursuing a career as a singing actor.

"I remember his answering the phone and saying, 'Gee, they just offered me a role in such and such a film,' " says Maazel.

A couple of years ago, he was able to inform his father, then 98, that he too had gotten a call offering him a role -- as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Never mind that he had held a few positions of note since he wielded a baton as a child at the Hollywood Bowl, directing the Deutsch Opera Berlin, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera and the Pittsburgh Symphony.

"Now that's a real job!" was what the father nearing 100 said to the septuagenarian son, who was making a move into the New York spotlight, and into a classical music opera, as well -- the soap variety.

Lorin Maazel, who reminisced about his career following a rehearsal last week at Carnegie Hall, returns to Southern California this evening near the end of his first season with the New York Philharmonic. He's coming to the Orange County Performing Arts Center as a guest conductor with the musicians he led before that, the Munich-based Bavarian Radio Symphony.

When he announced he would be retiring as its musical director, Maazel said he had chalked up a "staggering" 5,000 performances during his evolution from child prodigy to elder statesman and wanted to concentrate on composing.

About that time, however, the board of the New York Philharmonic was showing the door to 73-year-old Kurt Masur, after an 11-year tenure. That orchestra supposedly wanted younger blood to replace the stern German traditionalist, someone who might bring new audiences to Lincoln Center.

Up to the challenge

A series of candidates were given shots as guest conductors, in hopes that such musical speed dates would set off love sparks with the veteran New York orchestra members, who were in a "raw emotional state," as one player described it.

Masur had been "ripped out from under us in a very nasty way," recalls principal viola player Cynthia Phelps. "The man was not universally loved. He was tough. He yelled at us .... [But] Masur had such a spiritual connection to the music, and that's what we were used to.... And we were left hanging."

The orchestra was a daunting challenge for the candidates, especially those who thought they'd want a soothing break from a demanding leader. "Sometimes we get conductors who are a little deferential, who don't take full charge," Phelps said, not the least impressed.

Nor was violinist and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow: "If you're still looking for the next 18-year-old Leonard Bernstein, he's not there yet."

When it became evident who the musicians favored as the orchestra's first American conductor since Bernstein left in 1969, a New York Times critic wrote, in effect: No, not Maazel.

"There had been expectations of a new breed of conductor taking the city by storm," acknowledges Zarin Mehta, the orchestra's executive director.

What had changed the plot was a guest stint by Maazel, who had not conducted the philharmonic in more than 20 years, in part because his fee was higher than the orchestra paid. But this time, Mehta said, when an executive told the conductor, "That's our maximum fee, do you want to do it or not?" he agreed to two weeks of concerts.

"That's what swayed everyone in the orchestra, 'Let's get this man,' " says Dicterow, the lead violinist. "This man has a genius of talent."

There was his photographic memory for scores, his to-the-point rehearsals and his pure technique in controlling the pacing and phrasing -- the qualities he'd shown as a 9-year-old. "Just body language and his hands and his eyes -- we know how to read him," said Dicterow. "He knows exactly how to fix things with his hands. He doesn't need to talk."

For all the prodigies who fade, Dicterow believes Maazel shows the value of having been one, especially in conducting, where most others don't start until they're in their 20s. "He feels very much at home on the podium."

Taking charge

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