Informed speculation has it that Lorin Maazel won his current position -- music director of the New York Philharmonic -- with a performance of his own orchestral adaptation of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" at Lincoln Center in the fall of 2000.
After he had wowed the audience, the critics and especially the orchestral musicians with his work, he bumped up his stature from that of a venerable but long-in-the-tooth perennial guest conductor to dynamic front-runner in a fiercely competitive, closely watched contest. His ascent, which had been deemed improbable at best by most music management sages, suddenly became inevitable.
Maazel is in town leading our own National Symphony Orchestra in his "prize song" at the Kennedy Center, and one can easily understand what all the excitement was about. A magnificent technician and fierce micro-manager, Maazel also has the best "moves" in the business: Not since Leonard Bernstein has there been a maestro who seems such a pure embodiment of the species as it might grow in Hollywood soil and public fantasy. The profile! The gestures! The command! -- and, like Bernstein, Maazel doesn't forget to follow up with some distinctive and highly personal music-making.
Last night, the NSO was never less than a great orchestra, from the booming, iron-lipped brass through the roaring, rattling percussion, through the melting, impassioned lower strings. Soloists dropped in and dropped out, making their statements as eloquently as they could (eloquently indeed, as it happened), but it was the spectacular sum of all these parts that won the evening. Maazel played the NSO as if it were a single instrument -- an uber-organ or cosmic synthesizer -- and the 100-plus players responded reflexively to his every move.
The condensation, 16 hours and four operas distilled into about 80 minutes of pure orchestra, is titled "The Ring Without Words" and, with all due respect, it strikes me as a little too pure for its own good. The conductor set strict rules for himself: The arrangement would begin with the opening of "Das Rheingold" (the first opera in the cycle) and conclude with the final notes of "Gotterdammerung" (the last), and all the music contained therein would be in chronological order, with no back and forth permitted. And so some of the most potent moments in the "Ring" are eschewed (the conclusion of "Das Rheingold," for example, simply because it would prove too climactic too early in the piece). "Die Walkure" and "Siegfried," the middle operas, are underrepresented, while the selections from "Gotterdammerung" take up almost half the score.
Because Maazel refused to add even a single note to Wagner's score, "The Ring Without Words" is also somewhat serpentine in its form. One section follows another, and then another, without much connection to what came before. At its weakest, Maazel's creation seemed a series of biopsies -- living tissue, all of it, but isolated and abstract and perhaps a little mystifying. Some judicious grafting would have helped not only cosmetically but musically. Fortunately, much of "Gotterdammerung" is an orchestral showpiece, so it was easy to segue from the "Rhine Journey" into the great "Funeral Music" into the close of Brunnhilde's immolation and the thundering collapse of Valhalla (and, not so incidentally, the most deeply dysfunctional family saga between the House of Atreus and the Tyrones of Eugene O'Neill).
Still, it was a brilliant evening, with playing that was not only mind-splittingly lush but bursting with raw electricity -- a difficult combination. Maazel is a remarkable mind and talent.
The concert will be repeated this afternoon at 1:30 and Saturday night at 8.