The Philharmonic's New 'Admiral' Takes Command: If Maazel Can Make It There, He Can Make It Anywhere

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Since he'll soon have an office in Manhattan's Lincoln Center, this is an oddly inauspicious fantasy for Lorin Maazel to be spinning out. "Manhattan is an island," Maazel is saying, in that voice that makes him sound like a less ingratiating Vincent Price, "and the powers that be can, for whatever reason--a threatened terrorist attack?--close it down in five minutes. All of a sudden you're a prisoner. They could do anything to you that they want. This is scary." In his first major interview since his appointment, the new conductor and musical director of the New York Philharmonic has free-associated his way into a scenario of control gone out of control while discussing the opera he's writing, based on Orwell's "1984." Computers, Maazel fears, could make this prophecy of totalitarianism come true. "Soon you'll be told it's obligatory to keep that screen on," he says. "So we're going to do this opera. It's going to be set in today's world. It's also going to be a story not without hope. That's the one thing I can reveal: there's going to be a message of hope."

Well, at least he's loosened up enough to let that slip. Control tends to be a leitmotif in Lorin Maazel's for-the-record conversation. He won't take over the Philharmonic until September 2002--he's only the third American to head the orchestra in its 159 years--but he already speaks with a sense of the responsibilities incumbent upon the successor to Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein. He keeps a lid on what he can't "reveal," plants on-message one-liners (the Philharmonic, you'll be glad to know, is "rooted in the past and pointed towards the future"), remembers to say "he or she" at least one time in three and keeps guard over his own metaphors. "If the admiral has come up through the ranks," he says, alluding to his service years ago in the Pittsburgh Symphony's violin section, "he has the respect of the crew. I'm not saying that orchestra musicians are sailors on deck. I consider them to be collaborators and colleagues. But at that moment there is the leader-follower relationship, and that's OK, too." And he talks articulately about the great paradox of conducting: to maintain control of the orchestra, you must relax, and for the orchestra to relax, you must be in control. When Maazel hints that the interview is over by saying "So, now you know everything about me," it's hard to tell which of you is the more bemused.

Maazel, an august member of the great school of conductors who came up during the 1950s, has stepped into a situation that will put even his self-discipline to the test. The Philharmonic, America's oldest and most prestigious orchestra, began looking to replace its current head, the 74-year-old Kurt Masur, three years ago, with more awkward publicity than its directors would have liked. Sir Simon Rattle, who's recently signed with the Berlin Philharmonic, didn't want the job. Many of the orchestra's musicians didn't want Michael Tilson Thomas, of the San Francisco Symphony. Riccardo Muti of Milan's La Scala almost got hired, but negotiations broke down. Two other candidates, Mariss Jansons of the Pittsburgh Symphony and Christoph Eschenbach of the Orchestre de Paris, reportedly disappointed the New York players as guest conductors. Maazel, 71, who led the Cleveland Orchestra from 1972 to 1982 and has 300-odd recordings on his resume, hadn't been a contender--perhaps because of the $3 million to $4 million annual salary he reportedly made as head of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra.

But in November Maazel--who hadn't appeared with the Philharmonic for 25 years--wowed the musicans in a guest appearance, in part with his conducting of Bruckner and Wagner, and in part by telling them they were so good they didn't need a full schedule of rehearsals. …