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Maazel Tov

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?)

By Anne Midgette  |  June 24, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  national , random musings  
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Comments

I'm no musician, only a fan, and I've had relatively little exposure to Maazel in the concert hall in recent years, but I'll take a shot anyway.

I recall with particular delight a Sibelius Fifth with the NSO maybe 15 or 20 years ago. It brought the symphony alive for me in a way that not even the best recordings had. I was also able to attend his much-praised Mahler Sixth in June 2005. (Made a special trip just to see it.) If not quite revelatory, it was a lot more than merely competent. He is a great talent -- has been for well over half a century.

For all that, however, during the last few years I sometimes had to stop and think just to remember that he, and not Masur, was in charge now. It seems to me that you are quite correct, Ms. Midgette, in thinking that he has offered us fine music-making in the traditional mold (and that's nothing to be sneered at) at the expense of the sort of adventurousness available from the likes of EPS and MTT.

To some extent the trade-off is almost inevitable. When you're as good as Maazel, you want to invite comparison to the greats of the past, and the baseline for that comparison remains the standard repertoire. (Have you ever heard two conductors compared on how well they lead, say, a Rochberg symphony?) I'd say the New York audience was lucky to have Maazel, and I hope he'll find some time to guest-conduct the NSO now that he no longer has the spend so much of his time with the NYPO. And if he goes no farther afield than Mahler and Sibelius, I can live with that.

Posted by: BobL | June 24, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

There was actually one area in which Maazel has bought something new to the NY Philharmonic: operas in concert. And while I would have preferred something else than Elektra - which can be seen at the Met - I can only salute the choice of L'enfant et les sortilèges (yes, I know, City Opera did it but their orchestra is not in the class of the Philharmonic.)

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 24, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I am just a fan but thought the Maazel/ NY Phil concert was the least exciting in the WPAS orchestra series. Their all Tchaikovsky program was well played (of course) but lacked passion or a sense of discovery. I compare that with the Pittsburgh Symphony under Honeck, who kept me on the edge of my seat throughout and made me think differently about the Beethoven 7th. Thanks.

Posted by: petercapitolhill | June 24, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

For all his artistic skills, my memory of Maazel's tenure with the NYPO will focus on one thing: his (and the previous Administration's encouragement of it)misguided visit to North Korea. To visit a country with no artistic or other freedoms and to entertain thugs that would have choked their Stanley Drucker with his own clarinet if he missed a note in a homage to Kim Jong Il, was just wrong. His comparison of the prison at Guantanamo to conditions in North Korea was simply thoughtless.

Posted by: GRILLADES | June 24, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Maybe because, although his tenure was seven years, everyone knew he was just a caretaker for the next big thing? I'm guessing he's more interested in Castleton.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | June 24, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I am a NYC musician, and I was greatly disappointed when the NY Phil chose Maazel, for precisely the reason you mention - a lack of a real identity for the orchestra. I felt that they went with the "comfort food" choice after the spiky years with Masur, and that they did themselves and the city a great disservice. I was so hoping for a younger, vital, creative spirit to take over and reinvigorate what seems to be a surprisingly fusty and hide-bound institution in a city that used to pride itself on being on the cutting edge of all things cultural. NYC has long since ceded that position to a number of different American cities. I have high hopes for the tenure of the new Music Director, Alan Gilbert - perhaps he'll put the NY Phil back up among the most intrepid and exciting American orchestras.

Posted by: Mardi | June 24, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of the NY Phil, it just announced the online searchable concert database, similar with that at the Met. I hope this becomes a universal thing and that other orchestras follow the suit. In fact the Berlin Philharmonic released theirs as well; the one of the Cleveland Orchestra is also available. Could we ask the same thing from the NSO - an not just the NSO, the Baltimore Symphony, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago Symphony, indeed any orchestra? Please, pretty please!

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 25, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

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