Why Philharmonic Went With Maazel: Best Ears in Biz

So the New York Philharmonic will get an American conductor after all. And he’s young enough to make Kurt Masur look like his … brother.

Such, at least, seems to be the conclusion of the excruciatingly long public search that has ended with Lorin Maazel, 70 years old and a veteran of Cleveland and Pittsburgh–not to mention of Leopold Stokowski–installed as the replacement for Mr. Masur. For three years now, as four of the nation’s Big Five orchestras set out on a talent search for maestros, orchestra managers around the country have testified to the worrying dearth of experienced conductors, while critics called for daring young Americans. This week, the board of the New York Philharmonic voted to end this installment of the saga by having Mr. Maazel as their new music director.

Mr. Maazel might not be that rejuvenating champion many had hoped would fill Kurt Masur’s position. Shortly after hearing the news, one New York agent commented, “To think they pushed aside somebody of that age to have someone of that age!” Yet some critics will contend that only a man of Mr. Maazel’s experience would be able to keep a firm grip on the Philharmonic. “There really isn’t anybody else out there. The idea of young conductors at the Philharmonic is absurd,” said one close follower of Mr. Maazel’s career. “These people don’t have the experience; the Philharmonic is not an easy orchestra.”

A child prodigy who conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Stokowski when he was 9, and who went on to conduct the Cleveland, the Pittsburgh and the Vienna Philharmonic (to name a few), Mr. Maazel also comes with a history of personal problems at previous orchestras. But his supporters say he has an extraordinary memory and an astonishingly precise ear, as well as the all-important support of the notoriously fickle Philharmonic musicians. And at least his arrival brings to a close the period of relentless speculation that had roiled the orchestra for 36 months.

At least four conductors–Christoph Eschenbach, Mariss Jansons, Riccardo Muti and Mr. Maazel–had been publicly discussed as contenders. Last year Mr. Muti had been announced as the real thing, but then his negotiations collapsed, apparently over the number of weeks and the amount of money, and the Philharmonic’s spin team cast him as temperamental, noncommittal, demanding. Tim Page of The Washington Post named Mr. Maazel as the new choice on Jan. 16, yet the orchestra, claiming that the discussions had not been finalized, promptly asked for a retraction. Reached in Spain, Zarin Mehta, the current executive director, called the story “disturbing” and inaccurate, and asked for a retraction.

Granted, the board had not voted, but the Philharmonic’s denial was vociferous. Reached that evening in New York, Paul Guenther, chairman of the board, told The Observer –and anyone else who would listen–that the decision could be “weeks, maybe months away.”

“I can tell you,” Mr. Mehta also said on Jan. 16, “it’s not going to be announced in two weeks’ time.” Two weeks later, the Philharmonic announced that it would be Mr. Maazel.

The reaction that greeted the unofficial news of Mr. Maazel’s appointment was less than ecstatic. “No, NO! Wake me up from the nightmare! Say it ain’t so!” wrote a classical-music fan on an online Deja chat site. “This is a DISASTER of unbelievable proportions for NYC,” replied another.

On Jan. 29, the very day the Philharmonic board reached their decision, The New York Times ‘ Anthony Tommasini made what looked like a last-minute plea that could have read: anyone but Maazel.

“Given the Philharmonic’s immediate needs, he seems a curious choice,” Mr. Tommasini wrote. “Mr. Maazel is 70, a traditionalist with an imperious manner that seeps into his music making.” Mr. Tommasini then went on to argue for NYPO alumnus Pierre Boulez as an interim appointment while the orchestra reconsidered its options, including younger, more exciting prospects like David Robertson and Kent Nagano. While Mr. Tommasini praised Mr. Maazel’s talents (“a keen ear, a resourceful technique and an ability to draw subtleties of balance and color from orchestras”), he also pointed out what he perceived to be the conductor’s flaws: “His obsession with detail often renders his interpretations fussy and calculated, lacking in sweep, spontaneity and warmth.”

Mr. Maazel has been called anything from “arrogant” to “egomaniacal” by the press; has both impressed and infuriated critics and reporters, who resent his aloofness; and has left a trail of discontented musicians and orchestra managers in his wake. In Cleveland, his first American position, the board of directors appointed him contrary to the musicians’ desires, resulting in what one observer called “one of the worst marriages in the history of classical music.” The bitterness still hasn’t faded: “They do not want to see his face there,” said another, and Mr. Maazel has not conducted the orchestra since he left it in 1982.

The same echoes can be heard in Vienna, in Munich and in Paris–on his last tour in Japan with the Orchestre National de France, Mr. Maazel and his musicians did not exchange a word. In Pittsburgh, his last position in America, rumors swirled about a personal elevator built for the conductor so that he could avoid riding with the musicians. (The management in Pittsburgh denied these rumors.)

For a board of directors eager to avoid the kind of public clashes that have spanned the tenure of Mr. Masur and his former executive director, Deborah Borda, Mr. Maazel seems like a risky choice, to say the least. No one can say how the maestro and the Philharmonic’s board, not to mention the musicians, will get along for Mr. Maazel’s four-year term, which begins in September 2002. Under Mr. Masur, the conductor-musician relationships were notoriously tense, and the board itself sent him packing sooner than anyone expected, in what some insiders say was a reckless, unprepared move.

Yet the choice of the board on Mr. Maazel was bolstered, Philharmonic sources said, by the strong support of the musicians for his candidacy. His two weeks of conducting last November were a surprise hit, and a source at the Philharmonic recalled hearing musicians asking Mr. Maazel “to lead them to glory.” “He’ll crack the whip,” added one critic. Many hope that after his time there, which will run from 2002 to 2006, a young conductor will have emerged to champion the orchestra. Some are more blunt, calling Mr. Maazel “the stop-gap maestro.”

To understand Mr. Maazel, said one former colleague, it’s important to understand that “he is a genius. Child prodigies and geniuses have their own track in life; they’re different from others. He’s very unique, very special.” Asked if he had any advice for New Yorkers who would be working with Mr. Maazel, he said that yes, he did: “Never say no to him. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything he wants. But never say no to him.”

Even the musicians who hated him acknowledge his superior technical skills. “They still remember the Maazel years as the golden years,” said someone who knew him during his time with L’Orchestre National de France. “They keep on making unflattering comparisons for Dutoit.”

“Lorin Maazel probably has the best ears in the business,” said Don Rosenberg, a music critic who covered his disastrous Cleveland experience in The Cleveland Orchestra Story, “and he has thousands of scores in his head which he can retrieve from memory–he can hear anything. But he also has a low threshold of boredom, so he’ll start fiddling around with pieces and they become distorted.”

This tendency to “fiddle around,” to improvise when Brahms bores him, led Mr. Maazel to be viewed as something of an apostate in Cleveland after George Szell’s academic tenure. And one powerful agent compared him in this respect to Leonard Bernstein. “There were concerts when Bernstein was so self-indulgent about his own theatrics that the music was bad,” he said. “When he indulged, the music was grotesque, and Lorin has done that.” The agent added, however, that Mr. Maazel was “truly one of the greatest conductors that ever picked up a baton. If you watched him on TV without the sound, you could tell what he was conducting: There is a clarity of where the entrance is, of character, of tempo. Great musicians can do that. Bernstein could do that. But Lorin gets into trouble because he doesn’t trust people. He’s very controlling.”

Like Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Maazel has also made his mark in the industry for managing his moves independently of talent agencies like Ronald Wilford’s CAMI (Columbia Artists Management International) or I.C.M. talent (International Creative Management). According to English music writer Norman Lebrecht, Mr. Maazel even has a “professed loathing for the musical business in general and Ronald Wilford in particular.” A lawyer comes in at the last moment to verify final details, but there is basically no third party involved in his negotiations–his controlling hand is felt everywhere.

“As far as business and management, he’s an extremely shrewd and capable person,” said one former colleague. “Everything he does is planned, artistically and on a business point of view. He’s the only conductor I ever worked with who, if you put numbers in front of him, is very easy to work with.”

Although Mr. Maazel was not the first conductor to leave the embrace of talent agencies–Charles. Dutoit did it as well, and Mr. Bernstein before him–his attitude is consistent with other top conductors. “The higher up the ladder you go, the less you need a manager,” said another New York agent. “The field is very slim, and he’s right at the top. If a young guest conductor offers a work to an orchestra that they played the week before, he’ll have to change. If Maestro Maazel does it, well, that’s what he will do.”

Mr. Maazel has managed himself into being one of the best-paid conductors in the business. He was the first conductor to hit the million-dollar mark, in Pittsburgh; he garnered between $3 million and $4 million in Munich, according to the Daily Telegraph ‘s Mr. Lebrecht. It is widely estimated that his salary at the Philharmonic would not go below the $2 million mark–especially since his counterpart at the Met, James Levine, is reportedly paid $1.8 million. Mr. Lebrecht, whose book The Maestro Myth was responsible for breaking down taboos around citing conductors’ stipends and salaries, said that Mr. Maazel was a trailblazer on that front: “Maazel, I think can be said, was unique in … determining very early on in his career that he would be self-managed. There are accounts of him sitting through the night negotiating with Decca Records company an infinitesimal fraction of a recording deal both sides knew would never get paid. He always … loved to set records in this field.

“Would it be too strong to say he is greedy?” asked Mr. Lebrecht. “Let’s just say he always believed in his own worth.”