Last Wednesday wasn't a routine night at the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra's new music director, Lorin Maazel, made a gala debut, and -- at least to people in the music business -- questions swarmed around him. Why was he chosen? If you believe Mr. Maazel's reputation, he's mostly famous for two things: virtuosity and cold self-absorption. Is this what the Philharmonic needs? I asked that myself, in these pages nearly two years ago, when Mr. Maazel's appointment was announced. (Orchestras plan things long in advance). But now that he's arrived, I want to be fair, so I'll describe his debut as dispassionately as I can.
The first thing I'll report is astounding. Right from
the start of Beethoven's "Lenore" Overture No. 3, the first work on
Wednesday's program, the Philharmonic played better than it used to.
Spectacularly better, in fact; reports of Mr. Maazel's virtuosity may
actually have been understated. In just one short series of rehearsals,
he made the orchestra sound richer, warmer and far more unanimous.
That's especially true of the strings, who seemed to sustain their notes
with longer, fuller strokes of their bows. Their precision was as
stunning as their sound; when they played the tumultuous scales that
launch the climax of the overture, every note was not just clear, but
But there were oddities. The woodwinds, taken as a
group, didn't blend as cleanly as the strings. The horns, when they took
the lead, still detached themselves from the orchestra and played like
independent contractors, just as they did for Kurt Masur. Sometimes
everyone sustained too much, so much so that -- in what musicians call
"dotted rhythms" -- long notes swallowed short ones. When , for
instance, Beethoven (in the second movement of the Ninth) wrote music
that goes TAH-ta tah, it came out sounding more like TAH-d'tah.
Sometimes the short notes all but disappeared.
Yet I can't write that, because I went back the next
night, and heard the orchestra again. This time the concert started with
a world premiere, "On the Transmigration of Souls," which the
Philharmonic commissioned from John Adams to mark the anniversary of
9/11. It's a sonic landscape, sober and restrained, for chorus,
children's chorus and orchestra, with taped noises from New York streets
and taped voices reading names of the 9/11 dead. It's not meant to
provoke emotion, but instead to contain it, to create a musical space in
which we can be alone with our thoughts. It rises, even so, to a
troubling climax, but still it mostly made only a modest impression on
me. Maybe that's because I'm sated with 9/11, or because Mr. Adams
doesn't strike me as an accomplished electronic composer; the sounds on
tape seemed more like a scrapbook than like art. Still, I was grateful
for Mr. Maazel's uncanny skill, which brought this piece to a close that
hovered on the edge of silence.
Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2002