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Critic's Notebook: Maazel's final weekend at the N.Y. Philharmonic

June 26, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Maazel Tomorrow, an audience will shove through a narrow, rickety walkway under ratty scaffolding to witness Lorin Maazel raise the roof at Avery Fisher Hall. For his last concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Maazel will conduct Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8, written to accommodate 1,000 performers and performed here with a still-impressive 351 musicians, choristers and vocal soloists.

That Maazel will sonically raise the roof I have no doubt, because that is what he did Thursday night in the second of the run of four performances of Mahler’s setting of the end of Goethe’s “Faust,” possibly music’s most impressive representation of heavenly ascent. It was a reading of breathtaking beauty and grandeur — no matter that it was also infuriatingly slow and static.

Maazel has taken a dream Mahler orchestra — an orchestra that the composer himself led from 1909 to 1911 — and made it better. But what Maazel did not accomplish in his seven years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic was razing Fisher’s roof — figuratively or literally.


The current construction is part of the renovation of the plaza at Lincoln Center. The long-awaited redo of the hall has been on hold throughout Maazel’s tenure and remains so in these economically trying times.

Nor does Maazel garner much credit for bringing a sense of innovation to a staid organization. The local press never much cared for him. In his New York Times review of Wednesday’s performance of the Eighth, Allan Kozinn complains that Maazel “did little to make himself a symbol of New York cultural life.” More than once, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who did become a beloved civic cultural symbol in Los Angeles, has been used by New York critics as a bat with which to beat Maazel on the head.

Even Maazel’s hugely publicized New York Philharmonic tour to North Korea last year appears not to have made a difference in the world order. But you never really know about these things, and it may yet prove diplomatically beneficial.

The same may be said of Maazel’s seven years with the orchestra. He was hired to be a caretaker and that is what he was — on an exceptional level. But Maazel was also perceived as continuing a tradition of the orchestra being a country for old men. He was 72 when he began in 2002, and followed Kurt Masur, who was 71 when he assumed the music directorship in 1991.

Next, though, the New York Philharmonic will return to its earlier flirtation with youth. When the 42-year-old Alan Gilbert takes over in September, he is expected to lead the organization in new directions, just as fortysomethings Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and Zubin Mehta once did.

But Gilbert will also be required to pick up where Maazel left off, since Gilbert’s first subscription program as music director will be Mahler’s Third Symphony. And what he will inherit was well on display Thursday.

The magnificently executed Mahler Eighth was, to a considerable degree, the best quality that money can buy. Earlier this week, Maazel presented himself to a gullible Wall Street Journal as a man of modesty, notwithstanding that he demands a princely salary (reportedly in excess of $3 million) and has in the past hired Madison Avenue publicists to promote himself.

There was nothing even faintly modest about the Maazel who expertly commanded his troops with what appeared to be remarkably little effort Thursday night. Every orchestra section shined. The big choruses (New York Choral Artists, Dessoff Symphonic Chorus and Brooklyn Youth Chorus) were balanced to perfection. Wonderful sopranos (Christine Brewer and Nancy Gustafson) and an ardent tenor (Anthony Dean Griffey) were exactly what were wanted.

And yet this performance was pure caretaker Mahler. The program notes suggested the symphony would last 80 minutes, which it normally does. Maazel clocked in 11 minutes longer. At those tempos, he could exalt over all kinds of details. But he exchanged momentum and drama for examination. Awe was easier to find here than emotion.

“Where’s the transcendence?” someone shouted out after the end of the first part. It was a good question.

Comparisons with Salonen are unavoidable, given that he excitingly led the Mahler Eighth at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. He also concluded his 17-year music directorship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this spring far more modestly with “Symphony of Psalms.” It’s not very likely that members of Maazel’s orchestra, which is said to be quite keen on him overall, will instigate a public hug fest as their L.A. counterparts did when they said goodbye to Salonen after that last, beauteous Stravinsky chord magically hung in the air in April.

Still, Maazel is not without appreciation. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed Wednesday as Maestro Lorin Maazel Day.

Just in case anyone wants to hear just how much polish Maazel brought to Mahler, the orchestra is in the process of releasing a symphony cycle that can be downloaded not only at iTunes, which has highly constricted sound, but also on sites such as HD Track where you can download the symphonies with a fidelity approaching that of a CD.

The New York Philharmonic also used this week to demonstrate more of its electronic savvy by adding a searchable performance history to its website and a nifty new iPhone app that makes keeping up to date with the orchestra easy.

Say this for Maazel and the institution: They have standards. Gilbert’s challenge is to make those standards matter. And there’s that little matter of a roof-to-be-razed hall.

-- Mark Swed

Photos: Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times