Lorin Maazel has done a very bad thing. Have you heard? He wrote an opera, "1984" (based on the Orwell novel, of course). It was premiered at London's Covent Garden last month. And he paid for part of the production himself. Very, very bad.
The famed conductor is judged guilty of a "vanity project," and of having "bought his way to the top." He should have stood in line, suffered, scrounged. And the opera has been denounced by many critics as a failure. I cannot comment, because I haven't seen the work, or heard excerpts from it. But that is not today's subject, anyway.
I'm always encouraging people to compose - performers to compose - so Mr. Maazel's opera came as very good news to me. This is quite apart from the quality of the work. Sometime in the first part of the 20th century, the composer and the performer split off from each other. Until that time, the composer and the performer had been basically the same person. (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, etc., etc.) I believe that composing is the most important act in music - is, indeed, the creative act. Performance is something lesser, though we, of course, couldn't live without it.
Performers often say, "I express my creativity," by playing, or singing. I always retort, "You want to express your creativity, do you? Fine. Buy yourself some manuscript paper. It's fairly cheap. But don't spill what you consider your 'creativity' all over someone else's creation." Beware the performer who wants to "express" himself.
Several years ago, I wrote a piece suggesting that Andre Previn was "the great man of music in the world today." (I chose my words very carefully.) Why? Well, he is famously versatile, but the main thing is, he composes. He's a good pianist, an excellent conductor - and a prolific composer. (He also happens to be a crack music educator.) Our opinions of his output are beside the point.
James Levine is an excellent conductor and pianist, and much the same can be said of Daniel Barenboim. Have they written anything down? Do they have anything in the drawer? It would be interesting to know.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, composes, and I remember a comment from a critic after Leonard Slatkin opened some concert with one of his own compositions: "Who knew?" Who knew that Maestro Slatkin composed? Indeed.
In my view, if you compose, you're in the game - really in the musical game. You have your hat in the ring. You have a chance to leave something (besides recordings), to make an enduring mark. Also, composition requires a fair amount of courage.
Artur Schnabel, the great pianist of the first half of the 20th century, composed, and longed to be thought of as a composer, and remembered as a composer. But he never programmed any of his own music. Asked why, he answered, "That would be an abuse of my position" (as one of the leading concert pianists in the world, to whom crowds were drawn).That is a stance of almost unthinkable purity today.
Mr. Maazel is not shy, and he was not even shy about giving a violin recital in Carnegie Hall a few seasons back. At the time, I said that this was a bit of an abuse of his position: He was able to schedule that violin recital because he was a renowned conductor. But I also said: So what? People wanted to hear him - they voted with their ticket-buying dollars - and it was interesting to hear him (once). No one was forced to attend.
Furthermore, I long ago abandoned the absurd belief that the music business is a meritocracy. All sorts of factors come into play. If it's a meritocracy you're interested in, turn to sports.
And now to filthy lucre: Mr. Maazel paid for part of his opera production. Why is that not to be applauded? Why is that to be condemned? He put his money where his mouth was (or pen was). If he hadn't paid something, criticism might have been more severe: Think of the money this egotist caused them to waste! It was reported that Mr. Maazel had the sets for "1984" built in Canada, to spare Covent Garden the burden of building them. Score one for efficiency.
In addition, several critics complained that "1984" bumped some operas that are more deserving - that it cut to the front of the line. Well, who determines what the line is? Administrators? Critics? The public? I like something that Michael Tanner said. He absolutely trashed "1984" in his Spectator review, but he also noted the "tut-tutting" surrounding Mr. Maazel and his money. "I don't really see why" anyone was agitated, "considering the number of foolish or fairly disgraceful things that [Covent Garden] gets up to anyway."
Exactly. That applies to a lot of other houses, too.
We saw considerable churlishness here in New York when the Met put on Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac" for the superstar tenor Placido Domingo. Critics groused about what operas have been excluded from the Met stage: "Gee, they did that abominable 'Cyrano,' when they could have done X." Well, everyone has an X, and a Y, and a Z, and a dozen other letters. This was like upbraiding an author for not writing a different kind of book.
As it is good to be king, it is good to be a top-flight conductor. In March, to celebrate his 75th birthday, Mr. Maazel conducted the New York Philharmonic in a concert of his own music - just one concert, out of the hundreds he conducts. Was that "vain"? If so, it served the public, too. I was curious to hear his music - and, to repeat once more, this is apart from ultimate artistic judgments.
I say, the more composition the better. And the shorter the distance between the composer and the performer the better. And if the composer happens to be able to chip in some dough - let him.
Meanwhile, does James Levine, or Daniel Barenboim, have something to share with us? If not a full-scale opera, maybe a piano prelude, or a polka? I'd be game to hear it.