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In Lorin Maazel's hands, the Vienna Philharmonic is magical

Lorin Maazel, a late replacement for an ailing Daniele Gatti, pulls out a few amazing magic tricks with Schubert's Eighth Symphony and Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

March 04, 2014|Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.
Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Italian conductor Daniele Gatti, about whom there has been much interest of late, may have been forced to cancel his appearance with the Vienna Philharmonic at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Monday night due to an inflamed tendon, but he was replaced by an even bigger name, Lorin Maazel. The program of Schubert and Mahler symphonies remained the same.

But nothing remained remotely the same. Maazel is a uniquely idiosyncratic interpreter and a uniquely practiced veteran musical manipulator.

Yet everything remained mainly the same. It's the Vienna Philharmonic!

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Change comes very, very slowly to these guys. They've got finesse to their playing that has long been the wonder of the orchestral world. They're not all guys anymore. A handful of women, at long last, have made it into the ranks.

But while it might come as a surprise to the dogged traditionalist members of the orchestra who fought to maintain a men's-club camaraderie, theirs is not a sound but a sensitivity to sound and a standard. It's a way of players blending with other players that may be integral to Viennese culture but that also transcends race, gender and nationality. A conductor, especially one as radical as Maazel, can make a great deal of difference, but the real attraction is always the orchestra.

Maazel, moreover, knows this orchestra. In 1982, he was the first American to become artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, from which the Vienna Philharmonic draws its elite members. He may have remained in Vienna for only two years, but Maazel, who turns 84 on Thursday and who was a child protégé conductor, has conducted an average of two concerts a week for more than 70 years with more than 200 orchestras.

That experience may partly explain just how peculiar Monday's performances were. Maazel can do anything with an orchestra, and he's always got a new trick up his sleeve. He also has the reputation for having a mind suited for four-dimensional chess.

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In Schubert's Eighth Symphony and especially in Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Maazel was usually many moves ahead of me and definitely in another dimension. Don't ask why. Just know that the performances amazed.

The Schubert was big and deliberately slow, the two-movement fragment lasting a very long half hour. There was hardly an instant in which Maazel, like a sound engineer with a fabulously equipped studio, didn't find something to tinker with. With a full-sized orchestra onstage rather than the smaller and lighter-toned ensembles said to be more suited to early 19th century music, Schubert oozed through this orchestra like a thick, sweet melodic honey.

When a chord came along that seemed to particularly interest him, Maazel would all but halt the momentum, as if parting the Red Sea, and allow us time to admire a sonic sculpture of fabulously intricate blended tone. He also was able to bring the strings down to a barely perceptible pianissimo as though he were drawing attention to an aura as much as a sound.

Mahler's Fourth is the composer's shortest, lightest, most lyrical and most classical symphony. Maazel's magic act was to make it seem none of those things. The first movement lasted almost 20 minutes. A new recording by a period practice expert, Trevor Pinnock, of a chamber version of the score is half as long and probably closer to the tempos Mahler would have selected. But Maazel's tempos were more a matter of theatrical timing than slowness. He needed space to pull one instrumental trick out of the hat after another.

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Winds could appear as if from nowhere with a chirpy phrase. The violins might rub a layer of schmaltz. A solo horn, on the other hand, could then cut through the fat with clarion crispness. Mahler asks in the slow movement that the concertmaster retune his violin to create a kind of honky-tonk dance effect. With Maazel at the controls, this effect seemed like just one more weirdness.

The last movement is an angelic folk song, presenting a childlike image of heaven surreal even for an unusually surreal performance. Saints bake bread, slaughter a lamb, pick grapes and cook asparagus, while 11,000 virgins laugh and dance. Disappointingly, soprano Juliane Banse made a heavy meal of Mahlerian light verse, and swallowed, instead of fruits and vegetables, consonants.

But nothing could take away from the incredible elegance of this orchestra or Maazel's sorcery. The Vienna Philharmonic now moves up the state, repeating this concert in Santa Barbara and again Friday in Berkeley, where there will be further concerts conducted by Andris Nelsons and Franz Welser-Möst and a symposium on the orchestra's life between World I and World II, when it became a nest of Nazis.


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