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Classical Music World Mourns Conductor Lorin Maazel

FILE - Maestro Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during the main rehearsal for the annual New Years Concert, Dec. 30, 1998.
FILE - Maestro Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during the main rehearsal for the annual New Years Concert, Dec. 30, 1998.

Tributes poured in from the classical music world on Monday for Lorin Maazel, considered one of the most brilliant conductors of his generation, who died Sunday in rural Rappahannock County, Virginia at the age of 84.

A child prodigy who later directed the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic among others, Maazel died at his home from complications of pneumonia.

The Berlin Philharmonic, which he conducted regularly and had been due to conduct again in June, wrote on its website: "We are very sad that this reunion is no longer possible. We will remember Lorin Maazel as a great conductor, and we have grateful, lively memories of him as a master of energetic music-making with a timbral sensuality."

Maazel was born in Paris in 1930 to American parents of Russian origin, learned to play the piano and violin, and conducted orchestras including the NBC Symphony Orchestra and the Idaho Orchestra before he was a teenager.

His sharp ear for mistakes earned him the respect of older musicians and he combined an acclaimed baton technique with a memory that meant he rarely used scores.

Remembering Lorin Maazel
Remembering Lorin Maazeli
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Associated with most of the world's great orchestras, Maazel's hundreds of recordings included the cycles of the Beethoven, Mahler and Sibelius symphonies. He was the first American to become general manager and artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, in 1982, but fell out with the then culture minister and left after two years.

Current opera director Dominique Meyer said in a statement late on Sunday: "Lorin Maazil's death is for us a great artistic and human loss. We are however thankful for the many impressions which he left behind, and which will stay with us."

Among the many orchestras Maazel conducted was the Pittsburgh Symphony, where he was music director from 1988 to 1996.

“The most astonishing thing about Mr. Maazel was his prodigious memory," said Kirk Muspratt, who was a resident conductor at the symphony, working under Maazel. "I remember even when I was a student in Vienna, I went to see ‘Carmen’ one night, and there was an announcement that the conductor who was supposed to conduct ‘Carmen’ had taken very, very ill, and they took him to the hospital. Mr. Maazel was the music director of the opera at the time in Vienna. They called him, and he said, ‘Oh, no problem, I’ll just put my shoes on and come over and conduct.’ Fifteen minutes later he was there in a grey leisure suit conducting ‘Carmen,’ from memory.”

In 2008, Maazel took the New York Philharmonic to perform in North Korea in a concert aimed at opening a door to one of the world's most isolated countries.

The concert proved controversial. Though the U.S. State Department encouraged the Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang, many pundits criticized the concert as giving credibility to North Korea’s repressive regime.

Maazel responded to his critics, writing in the Wall Street Journal that “Artists have a broader role to play in the public arena. But it must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan and free of issue-specific agendas.” The goal, he wrote, was to bring “peoples and their cultures together on common ground.”

An audience of North Korea's communist elite gave the orchestra a standing ovation after a rousing set that included Dvorak, Gershwin and a Korean folk song. Some of the musicians were so overcome they left the stage in tears.

"Little did we know that we would be thrown into orbit by this stunning, stunning reaction," Maazel said after the performance.

The U.S. and North Korean flags hang at the side of the stage and the audience stands while Music Director Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic playing the U.S. national anthem before the start of their concert at the Grand Theatre in the Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 26, 2008.
The U.S. and North Korean flags hang at the side of the stage and the audience stands while Music Director Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic playing the U.S. national anthem before the start of their concert at the Grand Theatre in the Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 26, 2008.

In 2009, Maazel founded the Castleton Festival, an annual summer event on his Virginia farm, where he held performances and training seminars.  The festival gave promising young musicians the opportunity to perform in high-level productions, and learn from famous artists. Maazel was the lead tutor, teaching conducting, coaching singers and instrumentalists, and leading performances with his baton.

He had been rehearsing and preparing for the festival when he died on Sunday.

Maazel is survived by his wife Dietlinde Turban-Maazel and their two sons and a daughter, three daughters and a son from previous marriages, and four grandchildren.

VOA's Eric Felten contributed to this report.  

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