By Ricky O’Bannon
For members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra organization who knew him, Lorin Maazel will be remembered as a brilliant conductor, musician and teacher.
Maazel conducted more than 150 orchestras in over 5,000 opera and concert performances, he made more than 300 recordings across a 72-year career. He served as music director for the Radio Symphony of Berlin, the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. Maazel died Sunday at age 84.
BSO concertmaster Johnathan Carney played under Maazel, who was a frequent guest conductor for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and other groups Carney worked with in London. However, their first introduction came in a thin-walled 16th century monastery in Italy where his orchestra was touring with the maestro. Carney was in his room practicing the Brahms’ Violin Concerto.
“All of a sudden there was a knock at the door, and there he was,” said Carney. “He said to me, ‘Oh I just wanted to see who that was. The playing was so beautiful.’”
Carney said there were no names on the dressing rooms and the orchestra hadn’t started rehearsing, so Maazel didn’t know yet who he was.
“We talked a little about some passages and what he would do here or there,” Carney said. “It was a nice moment.”
Carney went on to play many concerts under Maazel’s baton, and he said he learned from Maazel both as a violinist and conductor.
“With him, less was more. His gestures were very nimble at times,” Carney said. “He kept things very exact. He didn’t have a lot of grand gestures in his conducting.”
BSO President and CEO Paul Meecham was general manager of the New York Philharmonic when Maazel guest conducted the orchestra for two weeks in 2000, leading to an appointment as music director in 2001.
“So many members of the orchestra had never played with him before, and they were just blown away,” he said.
Meecham described Maazel as a perfectionist with extraordinary conducting technique and command of the score, which in some cases led Maazel to make minor changes to composers’ work.
“You always assume that what the composer wrote down is gospel, but he would make small alterations to Mozart symphonies,” said Meecham. “I asked him once [why he did that.] And he said, ‘Well I know that Mozart would have wanted this to sound exactly like this, but he didn't quite get it right when he wrote it down.’”
That confidence, Meecham said, could be viewed as ego, but he believes that everything Maazel did was in service to the music. Through years of conducting various pieces, Meecham said Maazel knew where there were pitfalls where certain parts wouldn’t come together to achieve the composer’s goal, so Maazel would make those adjustments to help the performers reach that goal.
“The music was the same, and most people would never even notice. But there were certain things he [did which were intended to make] the musician’s life easier,” Meecham said.
For Andrew Balio, principal trumpet for the BSO, Maazel was a mentor. Balio first played under Maazel as part of a youth orchestra in the Music by the Red Sea festival in Israel. Balio said Maazel’s festival was the first chance he got to play for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was later appointed principal trumpet.
Maazel was a regular guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic, and Balio and the orchestra often toured with Maazel to Japan, Italy, France and Spain.
“I played so many concerts with him [that] he became like a teacher for me. I just soaked it in,” Balio said. “That's one of the parts of orchestral life. In a broad sense [for] the orchestra, we are the conductors that we work with on a day-to-day basis.”
Over time, Balio said musicians and orchestra gain the collective wisdom of their conductors’ experience, and he learned many things playing masterworks by Mahler, Beethoven, Strauss and Ravel under Maazel’s baton.
“He was the first conductor I ever worked with who gave me a grand sense of architecture,” Balio said. “He actually conducted the music like he had composed it himself. He was very much inside the score.”
Balio said Maazel sometimes used slower tempi, rewrote certain parts or used unorthodox bowings so the audience could hear subtleties of a piece that might otherwise be lost in a performance.
“He made sure that the listener was made acutely aware of what was going on inside the orchestration and the inner voices,” Balio said. “If there was an interesting detail inside the orchestra texture, he made sure to bring it out in a big way.”
While Maazel had a reputation for sometimes being difficult, Balio said Maazel was always kind, generous and humble with his musicians. That humility meant that when something went wrong in a performance where a player missed an entrance or had trouble with a passage, Maazel saw it as his own mistake.
“He blamed himself first. He told me [that he would] ask himself is there some way he could have conducted better to prepare the player better and make it easier,” Balio said. “And I will tell you, he was extraordinarily easy to play [under]. He just handed the score to you on a silver platter.”