Rock Boat XII: March 1st – March 5th 2012
TEETH and Extreme Animals at Glasslands

Vienna Philharmonic and Maazel at Carnegie: Sunday

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"When I was a young man in an old man's profession, I wanted to be taken seriously -- doesn't everyone? And so you get aggressive and combative, but that's not me today. Now I'm the most laidback, happy person on earth." - Lorin Maazel

How's this for a crazy claim: Lorin Maazel, who spent seven years under our noses as the NY Phil's music director, might just be the best conductor in the world. That seemed to be the presiding sentiment at Carnegie Hall last Sunday, where the Vienna Philharmonic finished off its annual NYC stand with a matinee concert led by Maazel. (He also led them on Friday and Saturday.) In a heartfelt tribute printed in the program, longtime Philharmonic chairman (and first violinist) Clemens Hellsberg took great pains to praise Maazel on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his debut with the orchestra, mentioning his name in the same breath as former Philharmonic associates Mahler, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. Maazel, in return, called the Philharmonic: "an august ensemble second to none."

The record speaks for itself: Maazel - who is now 82 - has led the Philharmonic in over 400 performances of 281 works by 51 composers (including Maazel himself), more than any other living conductor. Among those performances are 11 New Year's Day concerts, including a string of seven in a row from 1980-1986, when he took over for the Phil's longtime concertmaster, Willi Boskovsky. Maazel, who was named an Honorary Member of the Philharmonic in 2002, is as close to a permanent conductor as this famously independent orchestra will ever have. (Check out this interview Charlie Rose conducted with both Maazel and Hellsberg in 1999.)

12.3.4 Vienna Philharmonic Carnegie

So, what is it that this ensemble - regarded by many as the finest in the world - sees in little ol' Lorin that we couldn't see for ourselves while he was here? To be sure, Maazel is a headstrong, polarizing figure, known for stubborn idiosyncracies: even Hellsberg, in his tribute, admitted that Vienna "has not always reciprocated the affection" Maazel has shown them over the years. But, Maazel is also one of the world's great technicians, with an extraordinary gift for getting exactly what he wants, good or bad. Those are essential qualities to have when you only get to spend - at most - one week a year in front of this orchestra - though Maazel was chief conductor of the Vienna Staatsoper, where the Vienna Phil players all have day jobs, for two seasons in the mid-80's.

Seeing Maazel amble out onto the Carnegie stage to take his place in front of this revered orchestra was like watching one of those Hollywood scenes where a mild mannered associate is suddenly revealed as royalty. But the real proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and Maazel wasted no time diving into the music of Richard Strauss, which filled the first half of the program. Strauss wrote his tone poem Death and Transfiguration when he was only 24, and while it's filled with a young man's yearning, it also reveals a complexity and perspective well beyond his years. Maazel - who conducted without a score - dug deep, coaxing every last ounce of emotion out of the orchestra without blurring their astonishing virtuosity. There were no seams: the strings sounded as a single instrument, the brass crisp and clarion as they ignited the enormous crescendos. Harps and flutes gently floated above the fray, conveying a vision of the beyond. It ended in tonal ecstasy, the strings and brass building to one final climax before slowly fading away. Afterwards, Maazel looked completely spent, bowing deeply to the house.

12.3.4 Vienna Philharmonic Carnegie-3Fifty-five years later, Strauss wrote his Der Rosenkavalier Suite, stitching together waltzes and other incidental music from his 1911 opera of the same name. Here the music was more strident, less moving, with a river of darkness running beneath its sugary surface. (The opera itself is centered around a love triangle between an older woman and her much younger lover, who ends up leaving her for another woman his own age.) Like Ravel's La Valse, it both celebrates the waltz and foretells its demise: just another of the many victims of the 20th century.

Still, if there's one place where the waltz is alive and well, it's Vienna, and the Vienna Phil's place in history will forever be linked with that of another Strauss: namely, Johann Strauss, Jr., who dominated the musical life of Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Maazel devoted the entire second half of the program to Strauss, just like all of those New Year's spent in Vienna (though I was disappointed that he didn't haul out his violin the way he did in '96.) Among the favorites they played were the overture to Die Fledermaus (which I heard New Year's Eve outside the Staatsoper), the Kaiser Waltz with its tricky cello solo (played by Franz Bartolomey) - and, of course, the Blue Danube. There were polkas, an Hungarian Csardas, and even a pair of encores. The Philharmonic dispatched all of it with snap and glide, but also with an air of gravity: to the Viennese, these waltzes are serious business. 

12.3.4 Vienna Philharmonic Carnegie-9If someone were to ask who's the greatest American conductor ever to lead the Vienna Philharmonic, most folks would go straight for Lenny. Rightfully so: in 20+ years of visits to the Musikverein, Bernstein breathed new life into Beethoven, got the VPO to re-embrace the music of their former conductor, Mahler, and even got them to reconsider Bruckner's 9th in his final concert with them six months before his death. Lenny loved Vienna, and they loved him.

But, the fact of the matter is, Maazel had already been conducting in Vienna for several years prior to Bernstein's arrival in 1966. And, in their 170+ year history, noone has remained in their service for anywhere near as long. Simply put, the Vienna Philharmonic is not an orchestra willing to let anyone overstay their welcome: they ask you back because you have something to contribute, something to add to their well-established legacy. If being invited back to Vienna year after year for fifty years isn't the definition of greatness, I don't know what is.  

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More pics on the photo page.