Child prodigy and old master: Lorin Maazel | Music | DW | 14.07.2014
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Child prodigy and old master: Lorin Maazel

The American conductor died on July 13 at his home at Castleton Farms in the US state of Virginia from complications following pneumonia, ending a long career of astonishing achievement.

After a long career of astonishing achievement, the acclaimed maestro is dead at age 84.

One of the world's foremost conductors spoke seven languages. A violinist and composer, a painter by hobby, his gifts also included perfect pitch and a photographic memory which enabled him to conduct most scores from memory. It's said that after maestro Arturo Toscanini invited Lorin Maazel to lead the NBC Symphony Orchestra at age 11, its musicians greeted the Wunderkind at the first rehearsal with lollipops in their mouths. They - and the world - soon learned to take him seriously.

Prodigy and maestro

Lorin Maazel was born in Paris on March 6, 1930 to Jewish-American parents of Russian descent. The boy grew up in Pittsburgh, where his talents were noticed early on. At age five, he took violin lessons, was studying conducting by age seven, and gave his first public performance a year later. He played in a string quartet and sat in the ranks of the Pittsburgh Symphony before enrolling in studies of mathematics, literature and languages.

Lorin Maazel is pictured conducting the Munich Philharmonic in 2010, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Maazel's last position was with the Munich Philharmonic

By the 1960s Maazel was in Berlin in the dual function as general music director of the Deutsche Oper and principal conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (today the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin). The young man soon found himself in the pit at the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals. Charismatic and cool, he demanded - and received - astronomic sums for conducting engagements.

Setbacks and name recognition

Nothing, it seemed, could halt Maazel's trajectory. By the early 1980s, he was director of the Vienna State Opera but lost the job after only two years, by all accounts a victim of that company's penchant for intrigue. A later blow came in 1989 after the death of Herbert von Karajan. Maazel was widely considered the favorite to succeed him as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, but the orchestra elected Claudio Abbado instead.

Criticized as overly thin-skinned, Maazel instantly cancelled all engagements with the world's perhaps most renowned body of musicians. After a later reconciliation with the Vienna Philharmonic, he was familiar to tens of millions of television viewers for a number of years as conductor of that orchestra's New Year's concerts.

Mainstays in the charismatic continent-hopper's career included the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre National de France, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and finally the Munich Philharmonic. But as a guest conductor he in fact led over 150 orchestras in a career spanning 72 years.

His consummate mastery of the conductor's craft was, by his own account, accredited in part to the fact that as a violinist he'd sat in the musicians' ranks and knew what to expect from them.

Old-fashioned values

Lorin Maazel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 2013, Copyright: picture alliance/dpa

Pictured here with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2013, Maazel conducted well past retirement age

It all seemed to come so easy - too easy, in fact, for some. Maazel always seemed relaxed, sometimes aloof, even with the most demanding compositions. Critics praised his precision and elegance but sometimes missed the sense of artistic struggle, instead hearing routine and streamlined coolness.

Exuding nothing if not self-confidence, he embodied the virtues of a bygone era, claiming, "Today there are conductors who don't know how to transpose. They learn everything by listening to records, but can't conduct, compose or play. That's really sad, and I hope that one day we might return to the time of Mendelssohn, when everyone could do everything as a matter of course. Today's specialization is actually a lack of talent."

Often declaring his intention of stepping back from the podium to devote more time to composing, Maazel somehow never seemed to, remaining active on the podium until shortly before his death.

His enduring achievements include numerous recordings, several compositions (including the opera "1984," which premiered in London in 2005) and the Castleton Festival, founded in 2009 by the maestro and his wife, German actress Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, near their home in Virginia in part as a platform for promising young musicians.

Maazel didn't only live for music, but also had an interest in soccer. In 2013 he led the Munich Philharmonic in a recording of the anthem of Bayern Munich, his favorite soccer team, shortly before they triumphed over Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final.

"Music has lost one of its biggest stars; Bayern Munich has lost a friend," said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of the recording-breaking Munich team, upon learning of Maazel's death.

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