Lorin Maazel, Music Director, Cleveland Orchestra


Lorin Maazel faced formidable challenges in 1972 when he succeeded George Szell as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Not only was the French-born Maazel charged with maintaining the high standards set by one of the greatest conductors in history, he also needed to win the trust and cooperation of musicians who opposed his appointment. Although the players had no official voice in naming their new boss, they took a poll showing their preference for Hungarian conductor Istvan Kertesz. Maazel received only two of 98 votesbut not because he was unqualified for the post.

A prodigy, he had made his conducting debut at age eight, appeared with numerous American orchestras during his childhood and established himself in the international arena by holding key posts with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, New Philharmonia Orchestra of London and French National Orchestra. He also was endorsed by Pierre Boulez, the brilliant French composer-conductor who served as the Cleveland Orchestra’s musical advisor following Szell’s death in 1970.

A virtuoso with the baton, Maazel commanded a huge repertoire, and he was gifted with a photographic memory that enabled him to conduct most scores by heart. As an interpreter, however, he was the polar opposite of his illustrious predecessor. While Szell made every effort to stay true to the composer’s intention, Maazel regarded the score as a blueprint that allowed the conductor to express his own personality.

While Szell invested his performances with a rhythmic energy that propelled the music forward, Maazel played with the beat like a candy-maker pulling taffy. And while Szell communicated his wishes with an eagle eye and a minimum of show, Maazel was regarded by many as a flamboyant peacock on the podium.

Although the association between the showy maestro and the Szell orchestra was labeled “a classic mismatch” by the New York Times, it lasted for 10 difficult years. Despite the controversy surrounding his appointment and the eccentricities of his musical taste, Maazel preserved the quality of the ensemble by maintaining rigorous discipline and hiring outstanding principal players. He led fabulous concert performances of theatrical works, such as Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He also inaugurated an innovative contemporary music series, made best-selling records, took the orchestra on numerous international tours and rebuilt a subscription audience that had dwindled after Szell’s death.

In 1982, Maazel left Cleveland to take the prestigious post of general manager and artistic director of the Vienna State Opera. His tenure there was rocky, too, and he resigned after completing only 17 months of his four-year contract. The reason, he wrote in the New York Times, was “intolerable interference in artistic matters by the minister for education and the arts.” He subsequently served as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. In 2008, he made history by taking the Philharmonic to Pyongyang for the first concert in North Korea by a major American orchestra.

Among his other achievements were the championing of new technology in the concert hall and the performance of Beethoven’s nine symphonies in a single day in London. Throughout his career, Maazel was in demand as a guest conductor. By the turn of the 21st century, he had made more than 300 recordings and conducted over 150 orchestras and opera companies in more than 5,000 performances.

Trained as a violinist and composer, he continued to perform as a soloist in gala concerts, and he wrote several large-scale works, including an opera that was produced by the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. In 2008, he announced plans to launch a summer chamber opera festival at his 550-acre farm in Castleton, Virginia. Praised by Cleveland music critic Donald Rosenberg as “one of the most fascinating conductors of our time,” Maazel described himself as a musician who used to come across as “fanatical and mad” in his search for perfection but later learned to age gracefully.

—Wilma Salisbury


Cleveland Arts Prize
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