Maazel In His 80s Rode In To Rescue Chicago SO Tour

Lorin Maazel leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing (Todd Rosenberg)
“I think I have grit,” said Lorin Maazel, vigorous at 82, when he toured Asia with the Chicago Symphony in early 2013. 
Maazel died on July 13 of complications from pneumonia. (CSO Asia tour photos by Todd Rosenberg)
By Nancy Malitz

On Jan. 15, 2013, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra found itself in urgent need of heroes. It was six days before departure for a  high-profile Asia tour that was to have been led by the orchestra’s new music director, Riccardo Muti, suddenly sidelined by surgery.

And as the clock ticked perilously down, the orchestra learned that 82-year-old Lorin Maazel, who was shuttling between the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, was ready to help with some of the tour if he could.

Maazel conducted the Chicago Symphony  in Hong Kpng, Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Seoul.
Maazel took over the CSO’s Asia tour beginning in Hong Kong.

Maazel was 84 when he died on July 13 of complications from pneumonia after several months of declining health. But in early 2013, he was vigorous, mentally sharp, and openly thrilled to still be in the game. I was shadowing him and the orchestra on the Asia tour from start to finish, for several publications. What follows is a late-career snapshot of the maestro from that time.

“I think I have grit,” Maazel said in an interview before tour-ending concerts in Seoul, a tight schedule of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin dates behind him.  His tour had started by jumping the red-eye to Hong Kong in the wee hours of Jan. 27, after the last Saturday night concert in his two-week stint with the Philharmonic. He participated in a bizarre hand-off of the baton from Osmo Vänskä, who was able to start the tour for the CSO in Taiwan because his own Minnesota Orchestra was locked out.

Maazel shouldered the bulk of the Chicago Symphony’s tour after winning cooperation from the Met to re-jigger rehearsals there for Verdi’s Don Carlo, which he would conduct in February and March to mark the 50th anniversary of his Met debut. He pretty much lost all of Sunday after the final Philharmonic performance, given that Hong Kong was already 12 hours ahead of New York. It was Monday when Maazel actually got to Hong Kong for his stint in the Asian relay. He went directly into a late afternoon rehearsal for a performance that night.

In Tianjin,Chicago Symphony president Deborah Rutter thanks Maazel for stepping in. (Todd Rosenberg)
In Tianjin, with Chicago Symphony president Deborah Rutter.

“Two flights. 19 hours in the air, a limo from the airport to the concert hall where the fabled Chicago Symphony Orchestra waits to rehearse with ‘the Man Who Stepped In,'” quipped Maazel on his blog, noting that it would be the first of five Asia tours for him in 2013.  (The link to his blog from the home page at has been at least temporarily removed; the site now displays the announcement of his death.)

The man who had been music director of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Vienna State Opera, in addition to the New York Philharmonic, and had also conducted more than 150 ensembles worldwide, still made special note that the Chicago Symphony tour would allow him to add one more debut – at a new concert hall in the port city of Tianjin, near Beijing – to his swelling list of firsts.

For the CSO musicians, Maazel would be the third conductor to rehearse, on short notice, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, Brahms’ Second Symphony, Beethoven’s Eroica, and Mozart’s Jupiter, among other works. Back in Chicago, Muti had pulled out of – first one week, then a second – subscription concerts that were supposed to have prepared the musicians so that almost no rehearsing in Asia would be required. It was not to be.

Edo de Waart came down from the Milwaukee Symphony to bring a lucid, classically inclined approach to the Chicago subscription programs. But de Waart wouldn’t be doing the tour, so the CSO added afternoon rehearsals for each of the two concerts in Taipei under high-keyed Vänskä. He was given to allegros so blistering that at one point a violinist hoisted a white handkerchief with his bow.

Lorin Maazel, getting down to business with the CSO in Hong Kong.
Lorin Maazel, getting down to business with the CSO in Hong Kong.

Enter Maazel, in Hong Kong, and the prospect of additional double services – each concert preceded by a single rehearsal – for the still jet-lagged musicians. Maazel seemed to relax the group instantly. Looking comfortable, sweatered and smiling in a high swivel chair, the conductor spoke little, ignored the score before him, and retained eye contact, concentrating on prior alerts and adjustments mid-course without pause.

He warned of the things he knew would seem different to them, such as a sudden accelerando in the first phrase of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1, a possible encore. “I spent too many nights in Hungarian music clubs,” he told them with a self-deprecating smile. He spent careful time with the Jupiter, which in comparison to modern interpretive fashion was quite slow, even luxurious, focused on the music’s inner workings. And he warned of an extra-long pause at one spot in the Eroica, to murmured jokes from orchestra members about who might fall into an unplanned solo.

By the time they played Beijing, Maazel felt free to take spontaneous interpretive risks.
By the time they played Beijing, Maazel felt free to take spontaneous interpretive risks.

After the second Hong Kong concert, the conductor wrote in his blog: “What, if not a second concert with the fabled Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Verdi, Mendelssohn and Beethoven! How do they play so well… under the duress of a night-into-day time-change, a new Maestro and additional rehearsals? They just love what they do… and so do I.”

After his third concert, in Shanghai’s Oriental Art Center, Maazel praised the acoustics and commented, with the droll wit for which he had long been famed, “A young man with a music score sitting in the first row of the stage seats directly in front of me helped me conduct. A nameless hero.”

The most important characteristic of the Asian audience is its youth, says Maazel.
Maazel: What’s most important about the Asian audience is its youth.

Maazel also reacted calmly to the distracting “policing” of gadget offenders by Shanghai ushers who used green neon signs proclaiming “No Cameras” and Beijing ushers who wielded red laser pointers to shame cellphone users from afar. “The future of classical musical rests in Asia,” Maazel insisted while still on tour, in a burst of patience for one who never tolerated fools gladly. “The most important characteristic of this audience is its youth.”

In Seoul, near the wild ride’s end, he paused for an interview to reflect on what he described as better than decent handling of an impossible task. By then he had also participated in several press conferences with local presenters and political figures, and he had picked up a severe cold that had been accelerating through the orchestra.

But satisfaction gleamed behind watery eyes, as he spoke highly of his adventure with the orchestra and diving into great masterworks on the fly – even getting to the point in the tour where he felt confident about taking spontaneous interpretive risks.

“The first concerts weren’t perfect – how could they have been? – but they were quite good,” he said happily. Professional responsibility, he said, means setting off-stage troubles aside and doing the best one can, no matter what the circumstance. Adopting a deeper than usual baritone voice to imitate Orson Welles, in late-career, on the secret to sustained success, Maazel intoned:

“‘Just put on the apron and shut up.'”

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.

Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)
Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)