I've covered eight concerts Lorin Maazel has conducted over the past two-plus years, and have seen him at least a dozen other times over the past decade, both with the New York Phil and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Admittedly, the old man - Maazel turns 80 next year - won't win any awards for podium pyrotechnics, the way some others might.
But, that's not why the Phil hired him, nor why institutions like the Vienna Phil invite him back to conduct every year. Simply put: Maazel knows his stuff. Ask anyone who's ever played under him: when he's on the podium, he won't let things slide off the rails. He knows how to keep things under control - and just when to pull the trigger.
Which is essential when you're conducting Mahler, as Maazel has done many times over the years. In fact, Maazel has managed to conduct nearly all of Mahler's symphonies over the past seven years with the NY Phil, save for one: the 8th. And so, when the Phil asked Maazel what he'd like to conduct on his final program as music director, it doesn't take a genius to figure out his response.
I've only seen this massive symphony for chorus and orchestra performed one other time: during James Levine's first concert as the music director of the Boston Symphony, at Carnegie in 2004. It requires a ridiculous battalion of performers: eight solo vocalists, double chorus, children's chorus, and an orchestra of well over 100, including organ, harps, celesta, bells and chimes. The symphony is split between a setting of the hymn Venir, creator spiritus and the final scene from Faust. It's pretty over the top and about as far from subtle as you can get, but there's enough tonal complexity in the scoring to keep it interesting.
As I sat listening to the tremendous closing minutes, I suddenly realized that I was in the middle of a genuine moment: a pure memory of something I'll always be glad I was there to see. And hear.