Lorin Maazel, Prodigy Turned Prolific Conductor, Dies at 84

Lorin Maazel, the most prolific conductor of his generation, a child prodigy who performed with the New York Philharmonic at age 12 and later spent seven years as its music director, has died. He was 84.

He died today of complications from pneumonia at his home in Castleton, Virginia, according to the website of the Castleton Festival, of which he was founder. He had been rehearsing and preparing for the sixth annual festival, which began June 28 and runs through July 20.

Born in Paris, raised in the U.S., and fluent in English, French, German and Italian, Maazel conducted more than 150 orchestras in more than 5,000 opera and concert performances and made at least 300 recordings. He served as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and chief conductor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Vienna State Opera. He stepped down as director of the Munich Philharmonic last month.

Known as a technician with a clear beat, celebrated for his educational and charity work, Maazel remained an irascible and mysterious figure throughout his long, lucrative and turbulent career.

“I’m never looking for a perfect performance,” he told USA Today in 2003. “I’m looking for an impassioned performance.”

Cleveland Dismay

Maazel moved to the Cleveland Orchestra in 1972 to the dismay of the musicians who had voted 96 to 2 against him, clinging for 10 years to the post of artistic director. He was artistic director in Vienna for only two years, battling bitterly with Austrian bureaucrats.

Leaving Vienna in 1984, Maazel announced that he would focus on guest conducting, and only took the directorship of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1988-1996) after a prolonged on-off courtship.

He described the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, which he held from 2002 to 2009, as “the summit” of his field.

“The orchestra I found had a problem with self-esteem. Their reputation was not what it should have been,” Maazel told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “So it became my goal to restore their belief in themselves. And I leave feeling that I’ve been quite successful.”

He opened his inaugural season in New York with the world premiere of John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls,” written to commemorate the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In his final season he earned almost $3.3 million, while the philharmonic itself incurred an operating deficit of $4.6 million.

Pyongyang Performance

Maazel took the New York orchestra to China and North Korea in February 2008, when director Steven Spielberg’s withdrawal as artistic director to the Beijing Olympics was tipping public opinion against partnerships with oppressive regimes.

He faced widespread criticism, especially for the performance in Pyongyang, which some saw as a propaganda victory for the North Korean regime. “The Philharmonic is being used in a game it neither understands nor plays professionally,” wrote Bloomberg News critic Norman Lebrecht. “Music is the loser in this transaction, a poisoned pawn on a dirty board.”

Maazel maintained that the visit represented a step forward for North Korea.

“The reason they opened their doors is that there is a recognition in some part of the government, starting at the very top, that the time has come to move on,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg News after the trip. “In a way, it was alerting the populace that the party line had changed. Americans are no longer criminals and mad people and fanatic warmongers.”

‘1984’ Panned

Maazel’s compositions included concertos written for Mstislav Rostropovich and James Galway and “The Ring Without Words,” a symphonic synthesis of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. His operatic adaptation of George Orwell’s novel, “1984,” premiered in 2005 at London’s Royal Opera House and was roundly derided as a vanity project by critics.

“I’ve never seen such hateful reviews as ‘1984’ was fortunate enough to garner,” Maazel told the Journal in 2009. “They kicked my modest effort into a whole new dimension.”

Lorin Varencove Maazel was born on March 6, 1930, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. He was said to be able to hum Brahms’s Lullaby at 8 months.

Perfect Pitch

Delighted by their son’s perfect pitch and photographic memory, his American parents Marie and Lincoln -- an actor, poet and singer whose own talents were ignored by a violinist father -- moved to Los Angeles, where Maazel took up violin and piano lessons from age 5.

He began learning conducting under Vladimir Bakaleinikoff in 1937. By 11, the plump wunderkind had conducted at the 1939 World’s Fair, shared a stage with Leopold Stokowski at the Hollywood Bowl, and been interviewed by Time magazine, solemnly declaring: “I still have a lot of hard work ahead of me.”

In August 1942, he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducting a program that included Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“Undoubtedly some were skeptical,” the New York Times reported the next day, “but by the end of the evening there was no doubt of the boy’s talents. The crowd applauded heartily, recalling him to the stage four times, and showed no disposition to disperse until it became obvious that no encore was forthcoming. The men of the orchestra joined in the applause.”

At 17, Maazel enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, supporting himself by playing violin and acting as apprentice conductor to the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Fulbright Scholar

“I worked all day, had a string quartet, gave violin recitals, and went to night school from 8 to midnight to study economics, literature, French and Russian,” he told the U.K. Daily Telegraph. It was Italian conductor Victor de Sabata who persuaded him that conducting was his destiny, and Europe his destination.

In 1951, Maazel memorized a page of conversational Italian and bluffed his way into a Fulbright scholarship to study in Italy. Over the next decade, he notched up a series of debuts in Europe and America, often directing from the violin. In 1960, he was both the first American conductor and the youngest-ever conductor to perform at Bayreuth. He made his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1962.

Maazel was married three times, the last to German actress Dietlinde Turban, and had a total of five children.

He and Dietlinde restored an antebellum mansion in Castleton, Virginia, where their three children were home-schooled, sharing the estate with a camel, a zebra, several emus, waxworks of the great composers and a 130-seat theater.

In the summer of 2009, Maazel’s Chateauville Foundation opened its first annual music festival on the property, Castleton Farms. On its opening night this June, he described his work with young musicians as “more than a labor of love -- a labor of joy.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Steven Spielberg.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.