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LORIN MAAZEL enters the Munich hotel lobby briskly, as befits a man about to start a new job. He looks 10 years younger than his age, 71, and still plays three strong sets of tennis. Trim and tanned, he appraises me through hooded eyes: friend or foe?
Munich was to have been his last post, a refulgent decade with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra before heading home to the ranch to write an opera on Orwell's 1984, play the violin and appear as a guest conductor when he pleased. But fate had a quirk to inflict on the retiring Maazel. In New York last November, conducting the Philharmonic for the first time in 25 years, he was approached by a deputation of musicians who asked him to become their music director.
A persuasive lunch with the orchestra's executive director, Zarin Mehta, was followed by a unanimous vote of the board. Yet, on the morning his appointment was announced, the chief critic of The New York Times wrote an appeal, praying for "anyone but Maazel".
This was not the most propitious way to inherit a great orchestra, nor were matters improved when one director let slip that Maazel was just "a stop-gap appointment". Having told Kurt Masur that he was too old at 73 to continue, the Philharmonic was replacing him with a man of similar age, on a short lease. The world's wealthiest orchestra was left looking foolish; Maazel, typically, said little. A career-long lone wolf, shunning agents and fake conviviality, he permitted himself a wintry smile for the waiting cameras.
Six months later, he is still surprised. "I really was drafted," he says. "I was obviously very honoured, and I had been having a good time. I knew quite a few of the players; I had given them their first jobs in other orchestras. There was a chemistry between us."
The contract was swiftly settled - 14 weeks a year in New York, plus four on tour for an undisclosed fee, presumed to be in the region of $2 million (£1.4 million). "They offered me a five-year contract, which is rather a long time for a stop-gap," says Maazel drily. "I said I'd rather take four. I'll decide after two years whether I feel it's worth continuing. It's a wonderful challenge, and I am very flattered and honoured that folks think I can meet it."
The first thing he did was phone his 98-year-old father. "He is an old-style native New Yorker to whom there is nothing but New York," says Maazel. "Everything else I did - Berlin, London, Vienna - he just said, 'Ah.' But when I said, 'Dad, you wouldn't believe this, but you remember your old town, New York? Well, I've been offered the Philharmonic.' 'Ah,' he said, 'now that's a job . . .' "
Lorin Maazel has been around for so long it is easy to forget that he is one of the last of the anointed, the Fifties crop who were raised to the podium by masters who had learned their craft from Mahler and Toscanini. He came up the hard way, inhaling the smog of steel-mill Pittsburgh where his father, an actor, worked nights in a munitions factory through the war.
"I played violin in the Pittsburgh Symphony for three years to put myself through school," he recalls. "I had the amazing experience of playing under Stokowski, William Steinberg, Leonard Bernstein, Rodzinski, Leinsdorf, Cantelli. I worked all day, had a string quartet, gave violin recitals - and went to night school from eight to midnight to study economics, literature, French and Russian. I was determined to get a university education.
"Victor De Sabata heard me conduct a Shostakovich first symphony, stepping in for somebody. I said I had serious doubts about my qualifications to conduct. He said, 'It's not up to you to doubt, it's up to you to study. Go to Europe, learn some Italian.' "
He applied in 1951 for a Fulbright Scholarship - "the only thing I have ever asked for in my life" - and memorised 10 pages of a conversation book to fool the examiners that he spoke Italian. One of them told him, years later, that he left the room convulsed with mirth at the raging ambition of a 21-year-old who successfully bluffed his way to a Fulbright. "It changed my life," says Maazel.
Before the decade was out, he became the first American to conduct at Bayreuth, and De Sabata entrusted him with a world premiere at La Scala. He went on to lead the opera and radio orchestra in Berlin and develop a London link with the Philharmonia, at Otto Klemperer's instigation.
Klemperer had conducted the first concert he ever attended, as a six-year-old in Hollywood. When he mentioned it, the old man growled: "So that makes me guilty for your career?" Maazel's affection for the Philharmonia - "such a responsive group" - endures to this day. He is conducting them in Mahler and Bruckner this week and next.
At the Cleveland and Pittsburgh orchestras he earned a reputation for ferocious accuracy and frigid working relationships. In Vienna, where he ran the Opera for two turbulent years (1982-84), he was hounded out by self-seeking politicians and a tabloid hullabalo, accusing him of removing some of Vienna's favourite operas; Maazel maintained he was simply trying to ensure they were properly rehearsed. When he failed to succeed Herbert von Karajan at the Berlin Philharmonic 10 years ago, he gave the musicians a withering glare and told them he might not bother to conduct them again. He was tough as nails with the music profession, raising the ante both for conductors' remuneration and for the standards he demanded from his players.
On the threshold of fresh conquest, however, he remembers only the hard work and good times. "Whatever job I have had the privilege of holding," he reflects, "whenever I have been asked to help guide musical destiny, I have always given it my all. I don't think there is anyone who worked harder, since the age of 16. I have never had two orchestras at the same time, as is the custom with some of my colleagues. Musicians will go to hell and back if they respect a conductor - and he respects them. As a player myself, I have to."
We have been talking for an hour before he says what's on his mind. "Can you do empathy?" he demands.
"I can try."
"Put yourself in my position and ask why I should be sitting down talking to you in view of the rather unpleasant things you have written about me and my earnings over the years."
I had been half-expecting this. When Maazel was in Madrid earlier in the week, journalists had cited him chapter and verse from one of my books, and my Spanish publisher had warned me to expect a frost for having accused him of inflating performer fees and stressing the classical economy by sticking out for what he believed was his rightful due. But, rather than seeking confrontation, Maazel engages in clarification. In New York, he maintains, it took less than five minutes to settle his fee. There is a market rate, and he is at the top of the tree. He pays his taxes, supports charities and has young dependants. He is concerned about funding pressures, but would not relieve them much by cutting his fee.
This is true and irrefutable from the perspective of a musician who made his own way and, at one time, gave away most of what he owned in pursuance of his father's Buddhist ideals. Lorin Maazel is a complex artist whose role in the past half-century cannot yet be reliably assessed - for there is much that is untold, and more that is momentous and yet to come.
What I can assert with some confidence is that Maazel has softened, both musically and personally. He has a young family, aged eight to 13, a crowning glory in New York, and the considerable satisfaction of hearing his own compositions performed and appreciated. "Some men grow old and bitter," says Lorin Maazel. "I grow old and mellow."
26 February 1999: Maazel entrances with bow and baton [review of Maazel]
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]