Maazel at Bat, for a Final Season
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
On Wednesday night, the New York Philharmonic began its 2008–09 season, and Lorin Maazel began his last as music director of the orchestra. He arrived in 2002. His successor will be Alan Gilbert, who is coming to us from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
Because it was opening night, Mr. Maazel and his charges started out with the national anthem. As he has the last several years, Mr. Maazel conducted the anthem nobly, elegantly, and purposefully. Some people think he adds a little too much purple to the piece — maybe he does. But at least he takes his duty seriously. Often, the anthem is indifferently dispatched.
Mr. Maazel began the program itself with a Berlioz overture: the “Roman Carnival.” This should be right up his alley, full of color and splash. But is it up the Philharmonic’s alley? The sound of this orchestra is typically hard and brilliant — and Berlioz likes warm and lush. But their sound was certainly good enough. And, technically, they were alert and together.
Under Mr. Maazel’s baton, the overture was stylish while unbombastic. This conductor knows when to apply a little restraint. And fast portions, blessedly, were not too fast — tempos allowed the music to be enjoyed. This was a friendly, merry “Roman Carnival” Overture, if not a rip-roaring one.
Then came the evening’s soloist, Sir James Galway. When he first got going, 30 years ago, could anyone have said that a flutist — a flutist, of all musicians — would become an international superstar? But Sir James has, thanks to his skill, pluck, and personality. On Wednesday night, he played the concerto of Jacques Ibert (composed in the early 1930s).
In the opening Allegro, he displayed no little technique, including downright deviltry. But he also seemed a little hard, a little rushed, and a little blunt — a little unnuanced, I should say. Moreover, he and the orchestra were not exactly a model of coordination. In the middle movement (Andante), he treated us to some lovely colors — and the concertmistress, Sheryl Staples, contributed an alluring solo.
The last movement is marked Allegro scherzando — a mood that should suit Sir James especially well. And it did. Again, he demonstrated considerable technique. In one passage, he sort of burred downward, causing titters in the audience. The orchestra played decently — Ibert even allowed Mr. Maazel to impart a little jazz (as this conductor likes to do, perhaps particularly in French music, as well as American).
But this movement, like the performance as a whole, lacked a little — I don’t know: élan. After it was through, the patron sitting next to me said, “Pretty boring for opening night.” That was well put. Frankly, it was pretty boring for any night.
By the way, flutists can always use another concerto, however many they have. (Having a couple by Mozart’s not so bad.) I have recently learned that Lee Hoiby — best known as a song composer — has a concerto on the shelf, waiting to be heard. A flutist should snatch it up, and have a plum.
It seemed certain that Sir James would play an encore, and, lo, he did. The Badinerie from the Orchestral Suite in B minor by Bach? No — “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” Which Ireland’s sparkling “Jimmy” played superbly.
Mr. Maazel ended the program with a Tchaikovsky symphony, the Fourth. Last season, he staged an entire Tchaikovsky festival, part of the bill of indictment against him: the bill that says, “Maazel’s has been a backward-looking tenure.” It has also been a tenure of much sterling conducting — and we witnessed a lot during that festival.
We witnessed some more on this occasion. “Tchaik 4” began rockily, because the brass flubbed badly. They were not through with their flubbing, either. It was an unfortunate night for the brass.
Mr. Maazel handled the first movement in an interesting, rather subdued way. He was not showing off for the cameras (and the cameras were on, as this concert was televised). In the second movement, he did some toying, but intelligent toying. He also did some truly beautiful phrasing. He knows how to breathe in this symphony, and how to pace it. Also, he brings out passages in the score that usually escape notice.
How about the third movement, with all those pizzicatos? The Philharmonic strings played them like fiends — almost unerringly. And Mr. Maazel imbued the whole movement with a distinctive, right-feeling character. The final movement, he positively lit up, giving the audience — including those at home — a good show, plus a lesson in Tchaikovsky-conducting.
It would have been nice to hear an encore — but Mr. Maazel provided none. This is strange. In his first couple of seasons, he played encores all the time. Then, suddenly — and without explanation — he stopped. Too bad.
But, for all his shortcomings (mainly a world-class unevenness), it has been a luxury to have Mr. Maazel on the podium. Some people have begged for a younger conductor: “Get rid of the fogy,” they cry. “We gotta have young blood.” This is a relatively new desire: for youth in conductors. In previous eras, we have prized experience, wisdom, and maturity.
Last month, I did a public interview at the Salzburg Festival with Franz Welser-Möst, the Austrian conductor. We discussed the new trend — the desire or demand for youth on the podium. He labeled it “a sickness of our time.” And so it is.