Former Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra director Lorin Maazel dies at age 84



Lorin Maazel had a mission: Rebuild the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

His tenure as the PSO's music director for eight years was a homecoming. By the time he took the position, Mr. Maazel had already been music consultant for the orchestra and, decades earlier, a member of the second violin section. Pittsburgh was where he had spent much of his childhood and adult life.

In 1988, the orchestra was old. Many of its members were Mr. Maazel's former colleagues from his years as a section violinist. After four years without a music director, the PSO had become lethargic.

Mr. Maazel remade the orchestra seat by seat -- 37 of them, according to the book "Play On: An Illustrated History of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra" by Hax McCullough and Mary Brignano. The average age of PSO musicians plummeted. Many of those young musicians remain with the orchestra as principals and have come to define the PSO's sound.

"His job was to attract the quality of players that would make the Pittsburgh Symphony once again a great orchestra," said Robert Moir, senior vice president of artistic planning and audience engagement.

Mr. Maazel, whose precise, demanding conducting style earned him a reputation as one of the world's great conductors, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia, according to the website of the Castleton Festival, a music festival he founded. He was 84 and living in Castleton, Va.

With his appointment as music director of the PSO, Mr. Maazel became the first conductor with a million-dollar contract, Mr. Moir said. Under his leadership, the orchestra's status improved thanks to an active international touring schedule at prestigious halls and relationships with high-profile soloists. It won a Grammy for a 1992 recording with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"It wasn't on the orchestra's reputation. We didn't have the reputation at that point to be doing those tours," said former concertmaster Andres Cardenes, whom Mr. Maazel recruited to Pittsburgh. "We're still reaping the rewards and benefits ... the orchestra still plays in all those places."

The PSO's standing rose by mere association with Mr. Maazel, but his clear conducting technique and tough -- some might say autocratic -- leadership style also elevated the ensemble's playing.

"He brought a standard of excellence and a standard of precision that was sorely lacking when I first arrived," Mr. Cardenes said.

"I consider Lorin Maazel the greatest conductor of my lifetime," said Robert Croan, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette classical music critic. "It used to be said that his beat was so clear that if the sound were turned off, a professional musician could identify the piece he was conducting just by watching his baton motions. His time with the Pittsburgh Symphony was, in my opinion, that orchestra's golden age."

"When you listen to the PSO play in 2014 and hear the talent and artistry of the musicians Maazel attracted to Pittsburgh between 1988 and 1996, you hear the legacy of that culture he left for us long after he departed," Mr. Moir said. "Say what you will about his complicated personality or willful interpretations, Maazel set a 'gold standard' here and everywhere he went."

The orchestra returned to earlier sonic roots: Mr. Maazel drew out a warm, Germanic sound more akin to music director William Steinberg's approach than Andre Previn's later, more transparent style. Mr. Maazel called it "a European sound, dark and broad, beautiful," according to "Play On."

"We've never had a better conductor of an orchestra, builder of an orchestra," said principal oboe Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida. Still, "because he was so genius, he did have a hard time relating to everyday people sometimes."

A child prodigy, Mr. Maazel was born in Paris, where his father, Lincoln, a singer and actor, was studying, before his family moved to Los Angeles. His parents discovered he had perfect pitch when, after flushing a toilet and hearing the lingering sound, he declared it was a B-flat, Lincoln recalled in an interview with the National Council of Jewish Women oral history project.

Mr. Maazel began studying violin at age 5. A few years later, Lincoln got his son a conductor's score for Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony. Even as a child, Lorin demonstrated a natural instinct for reading orchestral music.

Lincoln persuaded conductor Vladimir Bakaleinikoff to watch his young son conduct. After an initial session, Bakaleinikoff said, "I've never, never come across such a talent in my life, and I've heard a lot of talents," according to Lincoln. From ages 9 to 15, Mr. Maazel made conducting debuts with major orchestras across the country.

When Bakaleinikoff moved to Pittsburgh to join the PSO as a violist and associate conductor, the Maazels followed him here. Lorin was 10 years old. "I think [Bakaleinikoff] was certainly the single greatest influence on Lorin's life," Mr. Maazel's mother, Marie, said in a NCJW interview.

The Maazels lived in Oakland. His mother revived and ran the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. His father was an actor active in the Pittsburgh theater scene.

"A son of Pennsylvania and a citizen of the world, Lorin Maazel spoke to the entire planet through the language of music -- a language he learned during his boyhood in Pittsburgh,“ Gov. Tom Corbett said. "His tenure as musical director of The Pittsburgh Symphony, and his entire career here and abroad, affirmed Pennsylvania's reputation as the home of artistic genius. The world of music has lost a great man whose legacy will long echo within the walls of Heinz Hall."

Mr. Maazel attended the Linden School and graduated from Peabody High School at 16. He matriculated to the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied languages, mathematics and philosophy. He soon won a spot in the PSO's violin section.

"Maazel was as much a product of our city as the steel that poured from our mills and framed the concert halls of our nation," Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement. "His legacy as a musician and scholar will play on in the memory of the city that shaped him and which he ably served as the conductor and guide of its magnificent symphony orchestra."

His directorships included appointments at the Vienna Staatsoper, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Vienna State Opera, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. In 2008, he led the New York Philharmonic on a concert tour to North Korea. He conducted more than 150 orchestras and more than 5,000 performances, according to the Castleton website. In later years, he was active as a composer and wrote music for the opera "1984."

He married three times. He is survived by his daughters, Anjali Maazel and Daria Maazel Steketee; son Ilann Maazel and daughter Fiona Maazel; his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, their sons Orson and Leslie, and their daughter Tara, and four grandchildren.


Bloomberg contributed. Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. First Published July 13, 2014 12:00 AM

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