Lorin Maazel: Child prodigy who became a prolific and demanding conductor unafraid of conflict and controversy

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The Independent Online

Lorin Maazel was the most prolific conductor of his generation, a child prodigy who performed with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 12. Born in Paris, raised in the US 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, the New York Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and as 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 said in 2003. "I'm looking for an impassioned performance."

Maazel moved to the Cleveland Orchestra in 1972, to the dismay of the musicians who had voted 96-2 against him, clinging for 10 years to the post of artistic director. He was artistic director in Vienna for only two years, fighting 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," he recalled. "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 with the world premiere of John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, written to commemorate the World Trade Centre attacks of 11 September 2001. In his final season he earned almost $3.3 million, while the Philharmonic itself incurred an operating deficit of $4.6 million.

Maazel took the orchestra to China and North Korea in 2008, when Stephen 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 the music 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 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."

His compositions included concertos written for the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and flautist 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 the Royal Opera House and was roundly derided as a vanity project. "I've never seen such hateful reviews," he said.

He was born in 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine in the Parisian suburbs. He was said to be able to hum Brahms' Lullaby at eight months. Delighted by his perfect pitch and photographic memory, his American parents, Marie and Lincoln – an actor, poet and singer whose own talents were ignored by his violinist father – moved to Los Angeles, where Maazel took up violin and piano lessons from the age of five.

He began studying conducting under Vladimir Bakaleinikoff in 1937. By the time he was 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, 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 programme that included Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. "Undoubtedly some were sceptical," The New York Times reported, "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."

When he was 17 he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, supporting himself by playing violin and acting as apprentice conductor to the Pittsburgh Symphony. "I worked all day, had a string quartet, gave violin recitals, and went to night school from eight to midnight to study economics, literature, French and Russian," he recalled. It was the Italian conductor Victor de Sabata who persuaded him that conducting was his destiny, and Europe his destination.

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

Maazel was married three times, the last time to the German actress Dietlinde Turban. The couple 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 theatre.

In 2009, Maazel's Chateauville Foundation opened its first annual music festival on the property. He died of complications from pneumonia at home; he had been rehearsing for the sixth Castleton festival, which runs until 20 July.

Lorin Varencove Maazel, conductor and composer: born Neuilly-sur-Seine, France 6 March 1930; married firstly and secondly (three daughters, one son), 1986 Dietlinde Turban (one daughter, two sons); died Castleton, Virginia 13 July 2014.

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