Lorin Maazel, world-striding conductor and consummate musicians' musician, died on Sunday morning, following an exhausting bout with pneumonia. He had already canceled most of his conducting engagements for the foreseeable future, and he had not been strong enough to conduct the operas at this summer's Castleton Festival. Still, the news came as a shock, that someone who had been making music professionally beginning over thirty years before I was born -- here he is as a young boy, conducting at Interlochen, in my home state of Michigan -- was now suddenly gone. The tributes have been universal. Over the years, we caught only a sliver of an epoch-spanning career, having reviewed Maazel with several orchestras, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Munich Philharmonic. His baton was laser-precise, which could make some of his interpretations too steely or overpowering, but one rarely complained of either sloppiness of execution or lack of self-confidence in his ideas. He knew what he wanted, and he got it, for better and, rarely, for worse. This trait made his collaboration with young musicians so good, in the orchestras he put together for the Castleton Festival. With older professionals, perhaps jaded by years of working with strong-headed conductors, it could backfire sometimes.
For this listener, where Maazel really excelled was as an opera conductor. Washingtonians were lucky in this regard when, in 2009, Maazel inaugurated a summer festival on the grounds of his family home in Rappahannock County. To get there, one drives on highways that become narrower and narrower as you move into more remote areas, eventually landing within view of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The grounds played host to a menagerie of animals -- a camel (named Omar and fond of matzo), a zebra, and the fabled zonkey (the zebra's offspring with a donkey) -- where Maazel, I wrote then, reigned like Prospero on his island. It was a labor of love for Maazel and his entire family, from his wife, actress Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, to several of the Maazel children. In a move that showed he was all in, Maazel auctioned off the 1783 Guadagnini violin he had played for over 60 years, raising $1.1 million for the Castleton Foundation. The festival's first venue, a 130-seat theater with a tiny pit built in the family's house, was supplemented with eventually larger and more stable tent theaters, including the one where we sat out the 2012 derecho, in more than a little anxiety at the rippling roof.
It was only through the Castleton Festival that we were able to experience Maazel's excellent Puccini live, as he slowly made his way through the composer's works list here: La Fanciulla del West, Il Trittico, La Bohème, and this year's Madama Butterfly, which he was not able to conduct. The scope of the festival made chamber operas most suitable, and Maazel led excellent productions of many of Benjamin Britten's small operas in the festival's early years: Albert Herring, The Rape of Lucretia, the adaptation of The Beggar's Opera, and The Turn of the Screw. Based on the taste Maazel gave us last summer, it is regrettable that we will never have the chance to hear him conduct a full performance of Peter Grimes.
His ear was not infallible, for example in his attachment to Andrew Lloyd Webber's setting of the Requiem Mass and his self-funded and widely panned opera, 1984. He had an eye for innovation, though, conducting the music for two of the best cinematic versions of operas ever made, Francesco Rosi's sultry Carmen (with Julia Migenes and Plácido Domingo) and Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni (with Ruggero Raimondi, Kiri Te Kanawa, José van Dam, and Teresa Berganza). Other examples include leading the New York Philharmonic on a controversial concert tour to North Korea, and creating a version of Wagner's Ring "without words" with the Berlin Philharmonic. A sampling of some of our favorite recordings with Maazel is below, but we will hopefully have a more complete roundup of Maazel's recorded heritage soon.
Sibelius, Symphonies, Vienna Philharmonic, L. Maazel
Puccini, Il Trittico, L. Maazel
Mozart, Don Giovanni (film directed by Joseph Losey), L. Maazel