Maestro Maazel On Life After N.Y. Philharmonic

Maazel's property includes a zebra (right) and a zonkey, the offspring of a zebra and a donkey. i i

Maazel's extensive property includes a zebra (right) and a zonkey (left), the offspring of a zebra and a donkey. David Deal for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Deal for NPR
Maazel's property includes a zebra (right) and a zonkey, the offspring of a zebra and a donkey.

Maazel's extensive property includes a zebra (right) and a zonkey (left), the offspring of a zebra and a donkey.

David Deal for NPR

After seven years at the head of America's most famous orchestra, Lorin Maazel conducted his last performance with the New York Philharmonic on Saturday. But the maestro is not bowing out of the musical arena.

Lorin Maazel leads students through a rehearsal at his property ahead of the Castleton music fest. i i

Maestro Lorin Maazel leads students through a rehearsal at his property ahead of the Castleton music festival. David Deal for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Deal for NPR
Lorin Maazel leads students through a rehearsal at his property ahead of the Castleton music fest.

Maestro Lorin Maazel leads students through a rehearsal at his property ahead of the Castleton music festival.

David Deal for NPR
David Deal for NPR

In a conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel, Maazel resists the word "retirement" to describe his life nowadays. He still conducts at the opera house in Valencia, Spain, and as a guest elsewhere.

And, at 79, Maazel has created a new summer festival at his 500-acre spread in Rappahannock County, Va. For two weeks starting Friday, young professional artists participating in the Castleton Festival will perform four Benjamin Britten chamber operas.

The festival grows out of Maazel's young-artists-in-residence program. This summer, his Virginia estate is home to more than 150 young people.

On Wednesday, Maazel conducted a rehearsal of The Beggar's Opera in a tent. In the pit, he gently led an 11-piece orchestra while a cast of 20 portrayed the lowlifes of 18th century London dressed in sneakers, shorts, T-shirts and summer dresses.

In addition to conducting at the festival, Maazel intends to teach a master class for aspiring conductors for the first time. He says that is forcing him to really think about what conductors can be taught.

He recalls once asking his fellow judges in a competition for conductors: "Can you define what a conductor is? You know what a conductor does, but what is a conductor?" They all said they didn't know, but they recognized one when they saw one, Maazel says.

"It's unmistakable, a natural-born conductor," Maazel says. "[A] certain ability to identify with the musical discourse, instinctively — and that can't be taught."

Maazel started conducting when he was 9 years old.

"Every musician must show his talent and proclivity at an early age," he says. "That is characteristic of the gift, as it is with chess-playing, math. That one plays publicly is a decision that is not taken by the youngsters, but his parents and his teacher. And in my case, I had the good fortune of not being exploited, as so many 'child prodigies' were, by keeping the number of concerts to a reasonable limit. I could go to school like everybody else and play baseball and football, which I did."

One recording of Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic in Stravinsky's Firebird reveals a restrained style with the musicians. Detractors have faulted Maazel for being disengaged. But Maazel likens himself to the first violinist in a string quartet, which he once was — a leader among fellow musicians. And, as an American, authoritarianism did not come naturally.

After his last rehearsal with the Philharmonic, one of the musicians said they had been waiting for Maazel to lose his temper once and he never did. Maazel says he was very pleased with that comment.

"I'm very firm about what it is that I feel I want for myself and from the orchestra and I'm quite stubborn, I keep at it," he says. "But if you respect the people you're working with, you don't start shaking your fist at them. It's also true at home. No child, and I've had seven of them, has ever felt my hand. An intelligent parent learns very quickly about the importance of the alternative. Rather than saying, 'Don't do that,' why not say 'Do this.' "

Maazel says it's important for conductors to lead.

"You don't talk; you do. And [you] do by having a hand which has been trained to express everything that it should express at any given moment, such as offering a point of reference for ensemble, for players staying together. Such as the kind of sound that you would like — mellifluous or brittle. And then there's tempo. You could express all of this in one motion, if you can, if you're a proper conductor. If you have to stop and look around and say, 'It's not together,' just walk off the podium and go home. Because that's your job, to get it together. If it's not together, it's your problem, not theirs."

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