June 21, 2007 6:54 pm

The conductor strikes back

Lorin Maazel is noted for self-control when he conducts orchestras. He proved that yet again on Wednesday when he led the New York Philharmonic – his New York Philharmonic – in the splashy final concert of 2006-07. He is not noted for self-control when he conducts interviews. He proved that a few days ago when he chatted with a reporter for the Corriere della Sera in Milan.

The controversial American maestro expressed his special love for Italy and, in passing, his lack of love for a few things at home. “New York is magnificent,” he declared, “but there is too much nervous stress. I prefer more human rhythms. Also, the America of Bush does not appeal to me.” It is possible to sympathise with that.

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He also expressed his disdain for the musical press. “When Leonard Bernstein was director of the New York Philharmonic, the critics dealt dishonourably with him, wanted him out. But American critics are incompetent.” It is possible to disagree with that, at least to a degree.

“If journalists wrote of sports as they do of music,” Maazel continued, “they would be fired a thousand times. But classical music is a niche field, and newspaper editors understand nothing about it . . . More than anything, critics hate the great music that appeals to all of us. Mediocrities cannot abide genuine talent. They turn up their
noses at Puccini, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, but praise certain contemporary composers whose music is unbearable.”

Unstated, of course, is the negative critical reaction, here and abroad, to Maazel’s own work as a composer, most crucially his not-so-grand Orwellian opera 1984 (which he personally helped finance at Covent Garden). “When I wrote the last note,” he admitted, “I told myself, never again. But I am already working on something else, something light and bubbly. It is nearly a musical comedy. The critics will turn up their noses, but what does that matter?” What indeed?

There was nothing light and bubbly about his seasonal valedictory at Lincoln Center. The sprawling programme began ponderously with Deborah Voigt singing five Lieder of Richard Strauss. The soprano seemed to be in rather strident voice. Her top tones rang with heroic warmth, as always, but her scale tended to be uneven, her pitch uncertain and, most troublesome, her expression bland. Maazel compounded the problems by stressing grandiosity (Strauss required no help in that regard) and by enforcing sluggish tempos. We have heard Brünnhilde’s “Immolation” performed with greater intimacy.

After the interval, Maazel turned to Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, a challenge long, heavy and complex enough to justify a concert by itself. Other conductors may convey the romantic rhetoric with greater lyricism or define the dynamic extremes with greater restraint. Others may offer greater propulsion. Few, however, balance the raucous glory, the nervous energy and clever grotesquerie with such clarity. Few untangle the expressive knots with such ease. Here was Mahler on a vast scale, unadorned and unabashed. And here was Mahler played with bravado by an ensemble of virtuosos.

Between the Strauss and Mahler, the chairman of the Philharmonic board came onstage to cite members of the orchestra who were celebrating special anniversaries or contemplating retirement. Hearty applause punctuated hyperbolic speeches. The sentimental indulgence was either poignant or provincial, depending on one’s perspective. In any case, it extended the concert beyond the two-and-a-half-hour mark. Meanwhile, down on the plaza, an eager mob enacted another annual ritual, the noisy-jazzy Midsummer Night Swing. The dancing natives seemed restless.

Summertime in New York, and the livin’ is queasy.
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