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Conductor Lorin Maazel: Masterpieces Survive Everything

Entering his final season as music director of the prestigious New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel told DW-WORLD.DE about the legacy he leaves behind with the orchestra and his plans to compose and found a new festival.

Lorin Maazel

Maazel said he looks forward to spending more time composing

Lorin Maazel assumed the post of music director at the New York Philharmonic, the oldest standing orchestra in the United States, in 2002 and will pass it on to Alan Gilbert at the end of the 2008-2009 season. The orchestra recently completed a three-week European tour, making its final stop at the Beethovenfest in Bonn, where it performed Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony.

DW-WORLD.DE: Mr. Maazel, as you begin your last season with the New York Philharmonic, what highlights do you look back on?

Lorin Maazel: I think many of our world premieres have been very successful. And I think our cycles -- the Beethoven cycle, the Brahms cycle, the Tchaikovsky cycle, and the Mahler cycle -- have left a certain imprint. And then our amazing tours -- this is our second European tour. We've also been to Japan and, obviously, the United States.

I think the orchestra is a major contender for number one, though I don't believe in comparisons. Each great artist and great orchestra has its own turf. But, nevertheless, the orchestra is a stunning ensemble, and I'm very happy that it's being recognized for what it is.

What do you hope the orchestra will take from you as you go, and what will you take from it?

Lorin Maazel

Confident musicians play better, said Maazel

I have learned a great deal from the orchestra, especially at a human level. They're wonderful, devoted musicians with a very high standard that they set for themselves. They take a lot of pride in their work and the orchestra and are very proud to belong to the New York Philharmonic.

In its 168 years of history there have only been 2,000 members, so the turnover has been very low. In fact, our first clarinet is retiring at the end of this season after having played first clarinet for 60 years, which I believe is some kind of record. That's the kind of orchestra it is. That has been very instructive to me.

I think they have had from me a kind of musical discipline and a restoring of their faith in themselves. They had lost some of that for one reason or another and that was the first task I thought I had: to restore their confidence in themselves. A confident player plays much better.

Then I engaged about 25 young players, all virtuosos. That has brought a virtuosic backbone to the orchestra which is very clearly in evidence. And I brought down the average age by about 20 years. So it's an orchestra full of young people and full of hope and enthusiasm -- what the Germans call Schwung and what the French call e lan.

You're currently the principle conductor of an old orchestra in the New World, so to speak, but you've also conducted new orchestras in the Old World...

Kurt Masur conducting

Maazel succeeded Kurt Masur at the NY Philharmonic

I have been the music director of the Symphonica Toscanini and will continue to work with them as a guest conductor. I have been music director of the opera house in Valencia; I audition the orchestra and will have conducted three full seasons by the end of the 2008-2009 season. I'm leaving them as well and I am going to be completely independent and will guest conduct when I want.

I have some monster projects ahead of me -- especially "1984," my opera. We've had more requests now for premieres in various cities of the world than we know what to do with. So I'm going to have to organize that as well. And I'm finally going to have some time to continue composing. Since finishing the opera (which premiered in 2005) I have not been able to put a note down, which I really regret. But I have several projects.

I'll also have my own little festival on my estate in Virginia -- the so-called Castleton Festival -- which I'm launching on July 4, our Independence Day, in Castleton, Virginia. It is a chamber opera festival and a mentoring festival, where young players, young singers, young stage directors and young conductors will be mentored by some of the finest musical minds about. I'll be devoting a lot of energy to that as well.

You've just performed Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. What is the appeal of Bruckner's music today?

The appeal of a masterpiece and a master never dies. I've noticed this again and again. We were just in China. I don't think the Chinese necessarily hear Western music every day of the week, at least the way we play it. They were reacting as if the skies had opened up and revealed a book of wonders. Concert after concert was packed with young people. Nobody explained anything to them, but you don't have to. A masterpiece can stand on its own.

Bruckner will continue to have its place and will continue to reach out to people -- if it's performed by people who believe in it. That's very important.

Masterpieces are at the mercy of their interpreters and that's why I so violently object to these ghastly stagings of great operas to satisfy the quirks and hang-ups and problems and psychological blocks that so many stage directors have. They use the stage simply to bring forth their own problems. That's not why theater functions. It's supposed to be there in order to throw into relief the salient points of a masterpiece, perhaps in a different light.

North Koreans look through the performance program before the start of a concert by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang, North Korea on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008

The NY Philharmonic toured Asia in 2008, including a historic visit to North Korea

When people speak as I do, they're accused of being conservative. But if you look at the staging of my opera "1984," it's hardly conservative -- it's wild, it's modern, it's contemporary. But it's sane; it's healthy. I think every effort should be made to keep the unhealthy and destabilizing people out of it, because you're simply doing the Mozarts and the Beethovens and the Verdis and Puccinis a great service. They will survive. Masterpieces survive everything.

I'm not a reformer. It's a pendulum. In five years all these people will be forgotten, but the Verdis and Puccinis won't. That's one of the reasons I'm very keen about my festival. We have very modern, contemporary stagings of Benjamin Britten's operas, which we are now doing in exclusivity for a while. He was probably the greatest writer of chamber opera of the 20th century. Very modern -- but sane and healthy.

I hope that with positive statements and by offering alternative stagings, which are healthy and contemporary and appeal to young people, we can make a point that you don't have to save masterpieces of the past by turning them into unhealthy spectacles.

The only thing that's effective is offering alternative solutions, and that's what we're about at the Castleton Festival in Virginia.

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