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October 6, 2008

Maazel and New York Philharmonic shine in DC

Lorin Maazel New York PhilharmonicThe 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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:55 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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