As part of the intermission feature during this December 5, 2000 concert, which celebrated Lorin Maazel’s 70th birthday, the maestro was asked to choose a few musical highlights from his 1988-1996 tenure as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. None came to mind. “I’ve a good feeling from them [concerts] all,” he remarked. “Out of sheer greed, I would have enjoyed staying on a few more years … I have my memories.”
And so too with this special concert: much good feeling but no real highlights.
The Mother Goose Suite was merely read, not probed. Although the cor anglais provided a marvellously rich line, Maazel’s penchant for affected phrasing robbed Petit Poucet of any forward direction, much less the inevitability of its goal. Similarly, the vibrance and zest of Mouvement de Marche was marred by ensemble problems among the winds, strings and harp that were briefly rescued by the solo flute. “Beauty and the Beast” was easily the highlight of the five: the clarinet and contrabassoon presented their roles with great distinction, yet where was the lilt, the charm, the “aha!” when the F-sharp brute gives way to the patient, but firm, F? The finale never did find its way to the magic of Ravel’s most sublime garden.
Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree was given a wonderful soundscape, skillfully crafted by Maazel and beautifully rendered by the orchestra. Dietlinde Maazel’s narration was superb, lingering for effect as needed (“The boy was away for a long time …”), yet never hindering the flow. Principal cello Anne Martindale Williams delivered the solo line with her customary excellence and marvellous range of colour. The music never got in the way with the tree’s storied metamorphosis from fruit-bearing to functional stump even as the music morphed into an ethereal waltz macabre.
Over the course of a distinguished career, Maazel estimates that he has worked with 150 different ensembles and given over 5,000 concerts—surely a record for Guinness! I have fond memories of him patiently cajoling the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic into successfully beginning Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 (in only 30 minutes!). The mood in the rehearsal hall was lectric. Much to the chagrin of some of our mentors, Maazel made nearly all of his points with his hands. So I was hoping for some of that physical fire to find its way into Dvořák's “New World,” Symphony but had to settle for just a little heat.
Only the “Scherzo” truly got off the page (and what a fabulous job the recording engineer did throughout—especially with the triangle, which I have never heard captured so well). The other movements suffered from an over-abundance of unwritten push/pulls that Maazel inserts when he finds something that interests him. This self-indulgent phrasing is so at odds with the master’s architecture that instead of time disappearing, I found myself looking forward to the double bars. But I’ve been spoiled by performances and tutoring from Karl Ančerl and Rafael Kubelik who both had the courage to risk ensemble train wrecks in order to create the chance for truly musical moments. They were able to release the art from its theoretical confines. Sadly, these electrifying, thrilling performances seem—in the past decade—as rare as music directors conducting more than thirteen weeks of the main series for their home bands. JWR