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June 29, 2009

Lorin Maazel's tenure at helm of NY Philharmonic ends with Mahler's mighty 8th Symphony

Lorin MaazelPlease excuse the delay in blogging, cherished readers. I snuck off to Argentina for a couple days, having heard there were great hiking trails down there. But I flew back via New York in time to  catch a significant event Saturday night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.

There, before a packed, vociferously enthusiastic crowd, Lorin Maazel wrapped up his seven year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in appropriately grand fashion, leading Mahler's gargantuan Symphony No. 8.

Although discouraging words in the press about Maazel's tenure were not exactly rare over the years, the orchestra seems to have relished the association with one of the world's most brilliant technicians of the baton. Even Maazel's critics usually will grant that he commands a podium as few conductors can. It's his interpretive approach that bothers some folks. The most common complaints are ...

micromanagement and emotional detachment. While I certainly haven't heard a zillion Maazel performances, I've heard a decent share, and I've got to say I've always come away impressed. This Mahler 8 was no exception.

Nicknamed Symphony of a Thousand because roughly that many performers took part in the 1910 premiere, this score requires an enormous skill set from any conductor. Just holding chorus, soloists and orchestra together takes more than a little ability; making sense of it all, delivering a statement that resonates far beyond the merely sonic, requires great incisiveness.

I'll readily grant that Maazel did not deliver, say, the kind of expressive roller-coaster that someone like Bernstein (not that there was ever anyone like Bernstein) could, especially in Part I, the uplifting setting of the ancient text Veni, creator spiritus. Maazel never let that music really rip with the sort of punch that can create a sense of surprise and total spontaneity, but his control of the massive sonic palette was awfully effective just the same.

Where he really showed his stuff was in Part II, Mahler's extraordinary treatment of the final scene of Goethe's Faust. Maazel made the long orchestral introduction terrifically suspenseful and truly absorbing, each pizzicato note from the low strings taking on enormous poetic weight, and the burst of tremolos from the violins creating a really gripping effect. There was just as much to savor once the voices entered the picture again, for the conductor was attentive to the sculpting of each curve and leap of phrase.

Throughout the evening, Maazel drew splendid playing from the Philharmonic, as compelling in the quietest moments as the most thunderous. (What a finely tuned ensemble he passes on to his successor, Alan Gilbert.) The evening also benefitted greatly from the superbly disciplined and richly responsive work of the New York Choral Artists, Dessoff Symphonic Choir and Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

The eight soloists were not uniformly equipped for the considerable challenge, but each of them inhabited the music so thoroughly that any strain in the highest reaches could be overlooked. A Mahler 8 that can boast the gleaming voice of soprano Christine Brewer and eloquent phrasing of tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is doing very well indeed. Highly satisfying, too, were sopranos Nancy Gustafson and Jeanine De Bique and mezzo Mary Phillips. 

All in all, a memorable experience, guided wiith calm authority and infused with a certain sense of nobility.

The stunning volume that Maazel unleashed in the coda to the nearly 90-minute performance was met with nearly as loud a roar from the crowd, which reserved its heartiest cheers for the conductor's solo bows. The Philharmonic players applauded vigorously as well. I suspect they're going to miss him.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:59 AM | | Comments (3)


And miss him they should: Maazel is one of the best! Yes, he may make the occasional interpretive "mistake" (what great conductor doesn't? -- if you want to make a mark, then you have to do something different, even just for the sake of _being_ different sometimes!), but he's bloody brilliant, and no ensemble has ever suffered from his tenure with them. I would hardly accuse him of "emotional detachment," too -- if anything, he may be "faulted" for exactly the opposite (which is what leads him down so particular and interesting a path). And regarding _anyone_ who complains of micromanagement -- well, just think of his predecessor in Cleveland, George Szell: no comparison! Sheesh!

(And the extended "opening" to the symphony's second part _is_ rather exceptional, isn't it?)

I'm sorry that I missed this performance (though seeing two marvellous Mahlers 8ths in the past 3 years did, I must confess, dim the immediacy of attending this one -- his Bruckner 8th last season was more than enough of a "concluding statement" for me ;^), but I'm even _more_ sorry that he's leaving the NYPhil so soon...


Thanks for the oberservation from the front lines. You choristers sounded fabulous. TIM

I attended the Mahler's 8th performance and thought it was truly fabulous--the experience of a lifetime.

Thanks for posting. TIM

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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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