Previously on this topic: Lorin Maazel succeeds Christian Thielemann in Munich
A Mahler Cycle And Uncomfortable Silence: The Munich Philharmonic in 2010/11
Today, at 11am CET sharp, Lorin Maazel signed the contract that will make him the new chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from 2012/13 until, God willing, 2014/15. This ends, for now, the saga that started with the botched contract renewal negotiations with Christian Thielemann, in the process of which the orchestra’s reputation has suffered considerably and which revealed most involved administrators and politicians as surprisingly inept. (Perhaps that’s what having to deal with “CT” brings out in people.)
Now Maazel. Who will be 82 years old when he begins his second Munich tenure—having led the BRSO from 1993 until 2002. Unkind souls might speak of ‘sloppy seconds’ for the Munich Phil, but the most prominent sentiment of the press conference with Maazel, chief cultural administrator Hans-Georg Küppers, Intendant Müller, and the mayor, Christian Ude was relief. The word was mentioned several times and in the refreshingly straight-forward introductory remarks of the mayor himself—not particularly a man of ‘high-brow’ culture but certainly concerned about the reputation of his town—said (in a single, long sentence): “Many thanks to Lorin Maazel, because it very much pleases the city, because it makes us proud, and because it very much relieves us that he has agreed to this commitment; therewith the international reputation of the Munich Philharmonic is now no longer in danger of entering a ‘critical period’. Instead we have guaranteed that an internationally preeminent figure that is well familiar with Munich can continue the successful path the MPhil is on and who will enthrall and captivate the orchestra and the audience.”
The question of money was on everyone’s mind. Mayor Ude said that no details would be disclosed but that in times where governments everywhere need to be particularly prudent with their expenses, he could affirm that the monetary parameters of Maazel’s contract did not exceed those of CT’s contract. Küppers confirmed that there were no outside sponsors involved in footing the Maazel-bill (as there had been, when he was at the BRSO). Thielemann wasn’t cheap, but Maazel is known to be even more expensive. Incidentally his price tag makes perfect sense in the US, where his ability to facilitate fundraising more than makes up for the healthy premium he generally asks for. It is that, not his sheer excellence or reputation, that has made him the alleged ‘most expensive conductor in the world’. Unfortunately that premium doesn’t make much sense in the fiscal-cultural environment of Germany and a city-run symphony—where the culture of private and corporate giving is different, not to say non-existent. In any case, if Maazel made concessions on the financial front, it is probable that the city made concessions on the ‘residency’ front. The official number is that Maazel will conduct 30 concerts in Munich, annually. But that’s a soft number which could apply to a host of scenarios. Most likely this will consist of six different programs conducted by the maestro in three blocks of two successive concerts with four performance each—plus a few kids-concerts, youth-events, and show-biz appearances like the annual Open Air shtick and a New Years bon-bon razzmatazz. The former all events that Thielemann, unable to hide his disdain for- and impatience with- such events, avoided like the plague. When Paul Müller mentioned the new-and-improved range of the repertoire, replete with the “masterpieces of modernity, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bartók”, one wanted to interject: “Yes, modern, when Maazel was a young man.”
The atmosphere of the press conference was reasonably friendly; Maazel and Ude had managed to defray most tension with their mix of half-hearted candor and their genuinely sunny mood. And it’s admittedly difficult to ask someone like Maestro Maazel straight to his face whether he knows that he’s just the expensive fig-leave for the administration’s ineptitude over the last year. Maazel’s age was addressed ‘pro-actively’, as one might say: Never have I heard the word “future” so often as in this presentation of the Munich Phil’s new octogenarian boss. Future-this, future-that… and amidst that the calculatingly candid admission of Maazel that during negotiations he had asked whether the orchestra didn’t fear that he might kick the bucket: Laughter, and any possible questions about his age nipped in the bud. No jokes, therefore, about whether he had been second choice after Kurt Sanderling turned down an initial offer. Or about taking shovel and pick-ax uptown to dig out Knappertsbusch for another go at it.
Consequently the questions from the press were ingratiating lobs, not intended to open old wounds and letting bygones be bygones. Thielemann’s name came up once or twice. The only potentially charged question on whether Lorin Maazel would bring a record contract to the Munich Philharmonic (an item that was so important to the orchestra when they found Thielemann’s activities on that field lacking) was avoided with suave platitudes on ‘all options being considered’, everyone being ‘open about possibilities’, and ‘not ruling out eventualities if they arise’. Maazel initially wrapped humor around his slightly barbed response when he suggested that he had already 300-some recordings to his name. Küppers chuckled as if to say “Good one, Lorin”. But would the orchestra members—currently on tour in Japan with CT—have chuckled, too? Maazel having already saturated the market with two versions of everything surely doesn’t do the Munich Phil any good.
The fact remains that nothing, absolutely nothing that was purported to be the problem with Thielemann has been addressed with this succession. In fact, it is obvious that what the solution Maazel addresses is not something that Thielemann could not achieve, but merely the lack of Thielemann itself. The relieve at the conference didn’t stem from having found someone who will do all that CT did for the orchestra, plus A, B, and C. But someone who prevented the departure of CT from becoming an utter, outright disaster. Now it’s merely a stain. The hiring of Maazel, for all his qualities as an orchestra educator, remains a naked grab for name recognition that allows all the involved, including the orchestra, to safe face. The decision pro-Maazel had nothing to do with musical questions, but was solely a matter of the city convincing itself that it was, indeed, still, a ‘cultural metropolis’ of world rank. No wonder Küppers positively beamed when he entered the neo-gothic Ratstrinkstube with Maazel on his side like a hot young trophy-wife.
Maazel, a diplomat par excellance, plays along and tells them exactly what they want to hear. Asked, later on, if he would be willing to jolt the orchestra into action if they ever got into one of their complacent moods, he long-distance schmoozed himself around it, saying: “I didn’t know they were without fire. When I had the great pleasure of conducting them the last time, I found they had everything that a great orchestra needs to set fire to the world. If they haven’t it’s not because of any lack of vitality on their part. The musicians are first class and can be compared to any major orchestra in the world… It’s just that sometimes they have been overshadowed by the Vienna Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic or the Philharmonia or the New York Philharmonic. And that’ll be my job: to give the concerts in the right places at the right time so that people recognize the true value of the orchestra.”
The idea—mentioned in asides and the less veiled in the press statement—that Maazel could make the Munich Philharmonic a more cosmopolitan orchestra and help it get its name out there is folly. If anyone could have established the Munich Philharmonic as an international force to be reckoned with it would have been CT, whose style and repertoire—focused, but less narrow than made out to be—played to its strengths and to a ‘story’. CT divided opinions, and strongly so, but so did and do most successful conductors. Divisive excellence and distinct individuality were more likely the Munich Philharmonic’s ticket to getting some international respect than a cosmopolitan blend of bland—inoffensive to all, exciting to no one—will be. Anyone who thinks otherwise is encouraged to read the reviews and comments about the Munich Philharmonic’s last US-tour with Lorin Maazel, or the one before that, with James Levine. To loosely paraphrase Norman Rockwell et al.: “Maybe we’ll bother going to hear Lorin (James) tonight to hear them with that third rate orchestra they’re in town with.” Back to the future, it is.
Asked if he would be willing to apply the necessary tension to the orchestra, because it seems to thrive on just that, Maazel puts on his most disarming, sunny smile, and croons with his wonderfully soft-sonorous voice: “Well, but that’s what I’m known for. What the Germans call Spannung. That’s my thing. I love music, I’m very enthusiastic about it and very passionate about it and every performance for me is a life-time experience in microcosm; I think we’ll get along very well. Musicians respond to that; in fact they ask for nothing more than to be inspired and to be challenged. And I’m the man to do that. I think.”
Good luck, Maestro.