Lorin Maazel is concluding his seven-year tenure at the New York Philharmonic this week with performances of Mahler's 8th, the "Symphony of a Thousand," in New York, starting tonight.
On paper, the Maazel-Philharmonic pairing has joined one of the best living conductors with one of America's best orchestras. And the musicians reportedly love Maazel and have been inspired by him.
So why, in reality, has this relationship had so little impact artistically on the music world? Maazel and the New York Philharmonic have played adequate-to-fine performances of a lot of standard works. They've started issuing recordings again. They struck a new blow for cultural diplomacy by going to North Korea. Maazel says in yesterday's Wall Street Journal that he feels he's been "quite successful."
But it seems to me they've failed to establish a notable artistic profile: they don't stand for anything. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, or Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra all seem to have a more vital identity, a more interesting agenda, than the New York Philharmonic under Maazel.
To some this may seem like heresy. I certainly don't question that Maazel is a superior technician to MTT (in fact, he's superior to just about anybody). But it's hard to hail the last seven years as a highlight of the Philharmonic's history. He may have gotten the players to play better, but I'd argue that even Kurt Masur had more of a vision of what he wanted the orchestra to be than Maazel, who simply accepts the orchestra as a given, and gets it to play. I think there has to be more to the exercise than this -- and I'm not even talking about extra-musical considerations like outreach, but about artistic vision and profile.
I'd be interested to hear what others think about this. (Would any musicians care to weigh in?)
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