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Maazel's powers of persuasion

The conductor makes questionable choices, but his handling of Brahms symphonies is simply irresistible.

May 17, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The official biography for Lorin Maazel printed in the program booklet for his two programs with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Wednesday and Thursday nights claims that the 73-year-old American conductor is "affectionately referred to as 'numero uno' by many of his colleagues."

Maazel does, indeed, have a reputation for an exceptionally clear stick technique. His approval rating among the players of the New York Philharmonic is said to be very high as he nears the end of his first season as its music director. He excites audiences. But critics often scratch their heads at his willfully micromanaged interpretations, his astronomical fees and lapses into bad taste -- he is conductor and violin soloist on a current best-selling Andrea Bocelli CD. When it comes to his conducting, "arrogance" is an adjective one hears associated with Maazel more frequently than affectionately.

The programs in Orange County were ambitious. Over two nights all four Brahms symphonies were played, along with Debussy's "La Mer" and the Suite from Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." The performances indicated that there may be a grain of truth in just about everything, good and bad, said about Maazel -- including the raves he likes to give himself.

Wednesday was a marathon of three Brahms symphonies, lasting close to three hours. Maazel's Brahms is not particularly micromanaged the way his Beethoven and Mahler can be. He began with the Third Symphony, and the performance was characterized not by clarity, but by thick, clotted textures and a heavy sound and aggressive forward motion. Some of this is the character of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. Formed in Munich in 1949, it is jokingly called the Bavarian Cream Pie Orchestra by some in the industry, and frankly that is what it sounded like as it launched into the first movement of the Brahms Third. One listened, amazed, at the fact that Maazel had served as music director of this ensemble for nine years at a salary rumored to be the highest in the industry before moving to New York.

The long evening progressed eccentrically from the Third to Brahms' Fourth and then the First, and as it did, Maazel and Bavarians gradually won me over. There was little warmth to the forceful playing, and my mind kept returning to the loving, dug-in richness of inner textures that someone like Carlo Maria Giulini used to bring to Brahms symphonies with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But the cohesiveness of the Bavarian ensemble and Maazel's drive made an unforgettable impact. The Fourth Symphony had a grand sweep from beginning to end. The First was all power and might, and it was a knockout.

On Thursday night, Maazel again showed little warmth in his phrasing of Brahms, this time the Second Symphony, but the engineering was superb. Phrase followed phrase with a seamless, forward energy that appeared effortless, reminding us that the Bavarians make BMWs as well as high-calorie desserts.

Throughout the Brahms symphonies, there were only one or two instances of Maazel's mannerisms, particularly the way he sometimes ended movements by suddenly slowing down to create a sensation of sonic mass. But where, one wondered, was Maazel's fabled control of small detail in these well-blended performances?

Even in a mostly literal reading of "La Mer," in which Maazel emphasized every one of Debussy's dynamic swells as if highlighting them with a yellow marker in the score, there was a lack of transparency that no bona fide micromanager would tolerate. But in the "Rosenkavalier" Suite, a perfectly awful 20-minute orchestral condensation of Strauss' opera put together by an anonymous arranger in 1945 with the octogenarian composer's approval, Maazel finally had his field day. In this hugely virtuosic performance, he toyed with practically every phrase, whether raucously careening through the waltzes or over-amplifying the love music. But this is home territory for the Bavarians, who rose to the challenge with take-no-prisoners gusto.

The encores were an opportunity for Maazel to show that, like a great race car driver, he can do anything with his machine. In two Brahms Hungarian dances that followed Wednesday's symphony marathon, he demonstrated the techniques of stopping and starting on a dime. For Johann Strauss' "Thunder and Lightning" Waltz, he turned goofy, as if he might be auditioning for a Monty Python skit about the Ministry of Silly Conducting Gestures. But he had the orchestra -- and the audience -- in the palm of his hand.

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