I am stricken to hear of the death today of Lorin Maazel at his home, Castleton Farms, Va., in the middle of the festival that he and his wife, Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, founded there, and that now continues without him.
He was 84 years old and had been suffering from what Nancy Gustafson, Castleton’s executive director, described as an unexplained illness following a kind of collapse from fatigue after spending much of the spring jetting back and forth between Asia, Europe and North America for various high-profile conducting gigs. The official cause of death was “complications following pneumonia.”
He had appeared on the Castleton Festival opening night on June 28, looking frail and half-supporting himself on the walls as he gingerly made his way to the mike stand to address the audience before the opening of “Madame Butterfly,” which he was scheduled to, but did not, conduct. Instead, he spoke about the ability of opera to move past verisimilitude to present something true to its listeners. It may have been his last public appearance.
Maazel was a musical titan who ruled at the podium with a cool, penetrating technical brilliance. This made him a divisive figure through his career, particularly since he didn’t suffer fools lightly; he was not always beloved of the orchestras he led as music director, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra among them. I remember the first time I heard him conduct, a “Don Carlo” at the Salzburg Festival: Excited at the prospect of hearing him, I was somewhat taken aback at what I might call the ruthlessness of the execution, which I described at the time as akin to a BMW on the German autobahn, a model of technical engineering with the ability to race over everything in its path. That technical engineering, however, made possible some brilliant performances; it was refreshing to hear him lead the NSO, an orchestra that hasn’t always had the advantage of technically accomplished leadership, in 2009.
He seemed to mellow in his later years. His 2001 appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic, controversial when it was made, proved not the unmitigated disaster some critics prognosticated; he rightly saw it as a cap to an illustrious career, and if he didn’t succeed in creating an actual renaissance for the ensemble, he enjoyed a longer and generally more tranquil tenure than many had expected. Among the oft-cited highlights was the performance in North Korea during the orchestra’s tour to Asia in 2008: another event that divided public opinion.
And the Castleton Festival, which began by presenting Britten operas in his home theater, showed him at his most generous and avuncular. Founded with quite a lot of his own money, the festival is dedicated to training young artists under Maazel’s tutelage. It also gave local audiences a chance to hear him conduct a full-size orchestra in some major repertory, since the organization quickly moved past chamber opera in the home theater to a full-size tent and the operas of Puccini, some of which Maazel had never conducted in a staged performance. A particular highlight was the “Trittico” of 2010, the festival’s second full season, which featured some thrilling vocal performances and world-class conducting from the maestro, drawn from an orchestra of young instrumentalists from around the globe.
In the obituaries and tributes that will flood the media in the coming hours and days and weeks, Castleton will not play as large as the major international ensembles Maazel shaped and led, including the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera, and the Munich Philharmonic, where he took on a late and unexpected music directorship in 2012 — a directorship that he resigned in June, as a result of the fatigue from overwork that laid him low and ultimately led to his death. But for the Washington region, Castleton offered a closer and more personal look at Maazel’s life and work, and even family — his three children with Dietlinde, Orson, Leslie and Tara, were always in evidence and involved in various ways with the proceedings. (He is also survived by four other children and four grandchildren.) For this critic, at least, it was a rewarding new perspective on the work of a musician who was, however much he divided opinions, one of the most important artists of our time.