Maazel and New York Philharmonic shine in DC
The party line in the New York musical press (and beyond) is that Lorin Maazel is a talented conductor in terms of technique, but too prone to adding interpretive idiosyncracies, and that he has been of little lasting value to the New York Philharmonic, other than getting it to play very well, very consistently. Maybe I'd feel like that, too, if I heard Maazel and the orchestra on a regular basis, but I doubt it. Everytime I encounter Maazel, with the New Yorkers or another ensemble, I'm taken with his distinctive approach to music-making, not just the uncanny authority he brings to a podium.
In an age when literalness is too highly valued for my taste, Maazel, who wraps up his Philharmonic tenure at the end of the season, stands out. He might bend a phrase here or rev up (or slow way down) a tempo there, but I can't think what law he violates in the process. Sometimes, the conductor doesn't seem terribly interested in adding some major personal element, but merely in helping the music to move along with its own internal force. Either way, in my experience, a Maazel performance is never dull and usually quite electric.
The latest case in point: his all-Tchaikovsky concert Saturday afternoon with the New York Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Oh, I can hear you moaning -- Tchaikovsky? Please, not that tired old romantic/neurotic again. Well, when was the last time you heard his Suite No 3 on a program? I've never understood why his four suites are so routinely ignored. This one, in particular, has abundant melodic charm and scintillant orchestration. It's like a ballet where the dancing is all in your head. Not profound music, just engaging, well-constructed music. And Maazel deftly brought out the best of the Suite, tapping into its rhythmic spark and finding lovely details of dynamic nuance. He clearly believes in this score, believes it is worthy of serious attention by a big, grownup orchestra. And although the playing wasn't entirely seamless (one tempo shift, in particular, seemed to catch some musicians off-guard), the results onstage suggested that the Philharmonic believes in the piece, too. It's fun sometimes to be able to drink in something that's just sweet and pretty, yet still classy. That's what Maazel and company provided.
After intermission, Tchaikovsky the Deep Thinker was on display, with his fate-obsessed Fourth Symphony. I expected more interpretive surprises than Maazel revealed, but I wasn't disappointed. There was a structural integrity to his approach, and keen attention to each seismic wave of emotion, as he generated a taut, rousing performance of this well-worked war horse. For the most part, the brass poured on the steam without turning brittle; the strings summoned terrific warmth; the woodwinds did some brilliant work.
All in all, the afternoon delivered the goods. Those who think Maazel is superficially brilliant and the orchestra is just a powerful, well-oiled machine that makes great, but soulless, sounds probably walked away still feeling that way. Happily, I didn't have that problem.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO (Bloomberg News)