A philharmonic maestro’s view

In what is turning out to be a very exciting week for music afficionados, the celebrated American composer Lorin Maazel is coming to the Thessaloniki Concert Hall tomorrow and Friday, the same two nights that Renee Jacobs will be performing at the Athens Concert Hall. Maazel will be conducting the Arturo Toscanini Symphony Orchestra in works by Verdi and Respighi. Currently serving as director of the New York Philharmonic, Maazel has also taken up the reins of the Valencia Opera, which since October has been housed in a new 4,000-seat building designed by Santiago Calatrava. In a previous interview the conductor and violinist gave to Kathimerini, he said that the quality of a concert depends entirely on the conductor and he stressed the immaculate image of the two orchestras: After all, how else could Maazel have received $2.28 million in fees for the 2002-2003 period, establishing him unquestionably as the most well-paid director in the USA (source: International Arts Manager, October 2005). Today, at age 76, he remains in many ways one of the last representatives of the «old guard.» What role can classical music play in this day and age? The same as it always has: It provides a philosophical and emotional dimension that modern life rarely offers. Works of serious music have expressed some of the most profound sentiments in their finest hues – sentiments that are directly related to the way people function. In contrast to what is often said, I don’t believe that classical music has been sidelined. It has always appealed to just 5 percent of the people. But this is the exact percentage that plays a decisive role in the progress of the human species. It is this percentage, which, thanks to their intellect, education and cultural background have the ability to lead and influence the fate of people in a positive way. Therefore, the influence music has on them is more important than their number. What is the goal of a top philharmonic orchestra, such as that of New York? We are first and foremost interested in preserving the repertoire, our cultural heritage. We have to strengthen and enrich it with contemporary works. We recently saw one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, working with homeless children and the migrant children. Do you believe that classical music must reach out to different social groups? Yes, I do. The New York Philharmonic has been working with young people in a thousand different ways for the past hundred years. The Berlin Philharmonic has only just started to do this. We play music at hospitals and schools. We organize concerts for young people and play with young musicians. What effect does the fact that American orchestras are either primarily, or entirely, reliant on private funds have on their programs? None whatsoever. Of course, the sponsors help us pay the rent, even though we make enough money from ticket sales. But we do not depend on our sponsors as much as people think. I would argue that our program is more self-reliant than state orchestras, where political factors may come into play. Does that mean you can make your program as demanding as you like? Exactly. In any case, we choose our program based on the audience, which may not necessarily be interested exclusively in contemporary music. There are music ensembles that play contemporary music exclusively for people who are interested in it. They perform a service that does not belong to us. We want to promote those contemporary works that are really worth it, the ones that we believe will become a part of tradition. I don’t know how successful we are, but at least we try. In short, we are interested in the quality of modern works, just as we are interested in the quality of the historic ones. What makes a big, international orchestra stand out above others? The conductor. Each and every conductor’s perception of the sound and color, as well as the overall conceptualization of each work is what makes the difference. These are imposed on the orchestra and determine the outcome. If a great maestro conducts an orchestra that is capable and technically skilled, then the musical result will be important. In other words, the interpretation of an important conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic or the New York Philharmonic will be similar. It would be very difficult for someone to tell one orchestra apart from the other. Of course, there will be differences in the individual solo parts played at some point in the piece. Even these, though, result from the combination of the individual musician’s instinct and the training they have received from their teachers and from the conductor with whom they work as a member of the orchestra. Was the situation different in the past? Yes. Every period has had its better and worse side. In New York, we are very successful at playing French, German, Italian and Russian composers. In Berlin, Moscow and Paris, they are very good at playing American composers. Young people today receive a very broad education, musically and technically, which allows them to move with ease through the entire repertory. This is a plus. The downside is that without the guidance of a great conductor, what you end up with is something vague and boring. It might be perfect technically, but as music it will not be interesting. Again, therefore, who is standing at the podium is very important. You have had an especially prolific career: From your early days as a young prodigy to today, you have given thousands of concerts worldwide with the greatest orchestras at the greatest concert halls. Your opera «1984» was also recently presented at Covent Garden. What does the future hold for you? I love my life and I like making music. I have always believed that life is a gift and the older I get the more I think this is so. I try, therefore, at each concert to convey my love and enthusiasm for life. I am very grateful that I still have the physical and mental strength to do this. I also plan to compose a second opera, but not quite yet. I need some rest. This interview was translated from the Greek text.