Maestro Maazel's Blog

July 2011: Castleton Festival 2011 

"The Castleton Festival 2011 triumphantly crossed the finish line: seven opera titles, four concert programs, six guest appearances outside of Castleton, excellent press, fifty thousand hits on the Castleton Festival website last week. I am thrilled that the inspired and intense effort of all the participants conspired to place the Castleton Festival among the top international Festivals. Long may it thrive." 

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October 18, 2010: Rehearsal with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam

"I conduct Mahler's monumental Sixth Symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in four concerts on October 20, 21. 22 and 24 in the fabled Concertbebouw Concert Hall. There are no finer acoustics anywhere and there is no orchestra in the world more suited to the Mahlerian sweep and breadth requisite to a performance that should launch listeners into orbit ....as I was at the first rehearsal this morning.
 
What an orchestral sound!  What intelligent playing.  What a happy morning for me. 

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October 5, 2010: BACK FROM BEIJING AND THE CASTLETON FESTIVAL 

Just returned from Beijing conducting the opera orchestra there. Every year the National Center for the Performing Arts sponsors some 450 concerts, operas, ballet evenings and the like. The orchestra is newly formed, with musicians from all over the world in addition to extremely talented Chinese artists.

The acoustics of the hall are excellent. It was so enjoyable working with these youngsters, some of whom I have invited to join their counterparts from England, Qatar, Korea and the United States as members of the Castleton Festival Orchestra 2011, a group I shall be taking to Beijing for two concerts on July 29 and 30, 2011. 

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March 10: CAN A BEETHOVEN CYCLE REUNITE NORTH AND SOUTH ITALY?

After finding myself unwittngly caught up in musical diplomacy (North/South Korea), I was looking forward to music-making without political involvement. A Beethoven cycle in Milan with the Symphonica Toscanini...nothing could be further removed from politics even if Italy is afire with pre-election fever.

Election slogans everywhere. The one that caught my eye was:
"The further we are from Rome, the better" or words to that effect.

Good grief, would the Milanese hold it against us that we had already given the Beethoven cycle in Rome last year? If so, could we soothe their ruffled feathers with the bucolic arabesques of the Pastorale? Or would the Northern League use the heroic overtones of the "Eroica" to trumpet secession from Italy?

I should not have been concerned. On five consecutive days, some 10,000 people came to hear the nine symphonies. Not a political murmur to be heard, only cheers for Beethoven.

As well they might be...a colossus straddling well-nigh two centuries with a power, dramatic sweep and Olympian surge second to none. I am ever more in awe of his breadth, the titanic thundering, his spinning out of pure and noble sentiments in so tender, genial and forthright a way.

He is the Emperor, certainly not Napoleon (to whom he had wanted to dedicate the Eroica until the Corsican sergeant proclaimed himself Emperor.) How shallow seem the political posturing, the hollow slogans; how poor the swath cut by the power-seekers.

But maybe our influence will be indirectly felt. Becoming part of the artistic experience...listening to impassioned music performed passionately (and how the young musicians of the Symphonica Toscanini poured out their hearts in performance...) can clear the mind of preconceptions, re-establish priorities, encourage logical thinking, maybe even influence a wise choice at the ballot box.

Let's await the election results. Who knows?

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TO CHINA & BEYOND

Stop Seven: Seoul

A world capital, buildings as far as the eye can see (and that's pretty far from the 26th floor of our hotel), bumper to bumper traffic in every direction.

Seoul, capital of South Korea. A fifty-minute flight from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, a fifty-year difference between the two.

South Korea is home to the world's largest manufacturer of steel. That tells it all.

In Seoul, on February 27, a reception was given in our honor. In attendance were the American Ambassador and top-echelon South Korean Government people. Praise from every quarter. We were told by these reps of the government: "70 million Koreans will love you forever!"

How wrenching to the hearts of all the Korean people is the drama of their split country. Every positive step towards lessening tensions, making contact, opening tiny doors, is greeted with collective joy. May their country someday be whole again.

Our concert the next day saw a change of program. We featured a Korean pianist, Yeol-Eum Son, in an all-Beethoven program but we offered as an encore "Arirang,"  the Korean folk melody beloved by all Koreans.

Replay!  As in Pyongyang two days before, cheers and tears.

We left for New York the same evening, profoundly enriched, wiser and so much the better for our, at times, surreal experiences.

We all believe the world is now divided into those who have been there, and those who haven't. Among the latter can still be heard the scraping of the old saws of preconception and bias. May our little band, in time, help enlighten the few armchair moralists who continue to rant. We don't have to be told how bad things are. We were there. 

If anything, they may be even worse than the fist-shakers think.

But clearly the time has come to shake the tree, not nuke it.

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February 28: Stop Six: Pyongyang, in Three Parts

Day 1 

The air ticket stub marked "Beijing/Pyongyang" will soon become a collector's item. It was a charter flight that took us from Beijing on February 25 to uncharted territory, North Korea—uncharted certainly for the 105 musicians of the New York Philharmonic and its 200-odd delegation of adminstrators, Philharmonic Board members and patrons, myself and my son, and some eighty media folk.

The airport seemed dismal, washed in a greyish drizzle. The welcoming committee consisted of North Korean police, "minders," and what seemed like a mass of reporters and photographers.

I was first off. Once on terra firma, I was engulfed in a mash of people, questions, microphones, cameras, flash-bulbs. Rescued, I was whisked off for pictures with orchestra members, then to a waitng car and our minder, a solicitous English-speaking guide.

We were to be lodged in a guest house, a Korean Dacha. The orchestra, staff and journalists were billeted in a hotel. 

The dacha accomodations are pleasant. Meals are served when appropriate. On the only available black-and-white TV channel, my son and I watched old films of "Our Great Leader" (the father of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il) helping to harvest crops, receiving flowers from admirers, chatting with factory workers.

That evening, a ballet performance was offered to all of us, iin a spacious theatre. It was very well executed and often accompanied by traditional Korean instruments. I was given the honor of offering flowers to the lead ballerina at the final curtain call for all the performers.

Day 2

 

The dress rehearsal was scheduled for 9:30 am, with TV cameras and an invited public of music students, professors and fans. The mechanics of putting on a television show are always complicated....when dealing with a language barrier, formidable. We certainly would have preferred ironing out the wrinkles without being watched by 1500 people but...unusual circumstances require unusual effort.

 

The camera crew from EuroArts led by producer Paul Smaczny was superb. The show had been brilliantly scripted. The orchestra was, as always, up to the mark.

 

I practiced my Korean with the translator, for I was to introduce each composition from the conductor's podium at concert time. There are many "tones" and vowels difficult to pronounce for an English-speaking person (some are quite close to French). I kept trying out my Korean phrases on Koreans in the orchestra. Got lots of giggles but apparently I passed muster.

 

There was little time to rest. The show started on time at 6 pm. The rest is history. It was seen live (or on brief tape-delay due to the time change) by some 250,000,000 people. The event was reported on the front page in more than a hundred of the world's newspapers.

 

There was a reception offered the orchestra after its performance. Speeches were made. Toasts were proposed. The tears we elicited at the concert when we performed our last encore, a Korean folk song entitled "Arirang," had brought Americans and North Koreans together so that the mood at supper was light, warm and sparkling.

 

We were well hosted. Official hospitality was beyond reproach.

 

The Korean Government need not have opened its doors to the New York Philharmonic, need not have invited scores of journalists from abroad, need not of allowed the event to be seen worldwide. We all feel that they did so because the moment has come to do so. Somehow, a door had to to be opened.

 

No one of us there forgot for a moment the plight of the North Korean people. There are gigantic hurdles to overcome. It will take years.

 

May our performance on February 26th have helped set the process in motion.

 

Day 3

 

It wasn't over yet. The next morning, February 27, in another, somewhat smaller concert hall, at an open rehearsal for students, professors and fans, four first chair players of the New York Philharmonic played the Mendelssohn Octet together with four Korean string players. Glenn Dicterow, our concertmaster, told me the players were superb and impeccably prepared. In other venues, recitals and master classes were concurrently being held with very young musicians ...one, a ten year-old girl, played Chopin to die, I was later informed by a colleague.

 

At 11 am it was my turn. I walked out on stage and found before me some eighty blacked-suited, be-tied men, spread out on stage in symphony-orchestra formation. The only women: two harpists back against the wall.

 

Silence.

 

In self-defense, I gave the downbeat. We were off. The next 80 minutes we rehearsed and performed Wagner's Meistersinger Overture and Tchaikowsky's Overture/Fantasy, Romeo and Juliet. Astonishing was the high level of playing, of flexibility in following the conductor's beat, of phrasing. The musicians began to sway with the sounds they were making. We had become friends through music.

 

We rushed off directly to the airport. The air ticket stub PYONGYANG/SEOUL will also someday be a collector's item.

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February 25: Stop Five: Beijing

The last two concerts of the our tour in China took place on Saturday and Sunday, February 23 & 24, in the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. The Centre took five and a half years to build, costing 535 million dollars. Finished mid-2007. It has three performance spaces: a 2,416-seat opera house, a 2,017-seat concert hall and a 1,040-seat theater. It was designed by the French architect Paul Andreu.

Breathtaking. Overwhelming. A wonder.

These are words that come to mind when viewing the structure from within. Look up from the foyer and you see a titanium and glass dome 46 meters high, 212 meters in the east-west direction, 144 meters in the north-south direction. There is an enclosed walkway perhaps 20 meters high leading to the foyer. Look up from the walkway and you see a long, glass roof covered with a shallow film of water, filtering sunbeams through wind-blown wavelets.

An aesthetic triumph.

I checked out the opera house. State-of-the-Art everything...hydraulic lifts, revolving platform, with a gigantic stage, computerized control panels. Apparently dream acoustics. Seen from the stage, the house is heavenly to look at (much use of vermilion).

Oh yes, the concert hall. The seating is on all sides of the stage, with intimate, warm acoustics. At both concerts I saw mostly young people, many couples with young children (who were SO quiet).

We ran out of encores again.

The Mayor was in attendance making clear the importance the government attaches to the Arts. Post-concert he offered us warm words of praise and precious gifts.

Beijing is unrecognaizable to those such as myself who remember the city as it was twenty years ago. This is my fourth trip here, the first being in the nineteen eighties with the Pittsburgh Symphony, only the second American symphony orchestra to be invited to China.

Now skyscrapers abound, broad avenues, Parisian-style, grace the city's center.  There's a feeling of bustle and vitality. Gone are the swarming bicycles....in their place, neat functional cars flitting about. The pollution has been dramatically reduced.

Yesterday I revisted the Great Wall. It was sunny but cold. The Wall has not been moved (!)....
still stately, impressive, winding atop mountainous crags and spanning gorges.

I shall long remember this trip to China.

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February 22: Stop Four: Shanghai. Through intersections and reluctant drivers. Got to the hall on time.

Imagine the skyscrapers of Manhattan added to those of Century City in Los Angeles and the Chicago Strip, interspersed with spacious parks and cozy niches, and one can just begin to grasp the sweep, the grandeur of the Shanghai of February 2008. At the speed of construction and the sight of many a futuristic skyscraper up or going up (reminiscent of the film Blade Runner), by next month the city may have sprouted yet another quarter, yet another series of stunning architectural flights of fancy.

We made the grand entrance: our plane was late, leaving me after arrival just 80 minutues to get to the hall. A police escort was laid on. We bullied our way through intersections and reluctant-to-move cars (their drivers unimpressed by the siren and flashing lights). Got to the hall just in time to dress and walk to the podium to start the concert punctually.

The audience was reserved at first (should be). We had to convince them of our merit. We must have, because at the first and last night's concert, we used up all our encores.

The Hall (the Shanghai Grand Theatre) has perfect acoustics. Sold-out. Well, the city has a twenty-million population. Quite a few people to draw upon. Everywhere, there's a feeling of burgeoning wealth.

The rehearsal/concert I conducted with students yesterday afternoon ardently playing The Bat Overture of J. Strauss and the Carmen Overture was such fun. These young people, few of them pre-fessionals, were so well prepared, so focused, so earnest.

I shall always carry with me the image of these delightful youngsters.

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February 19: Stop Three: Part II

The third concert in our series in Hong Kong at the Cultural Centre featured a departure from touring practice: the performance of an associate conductor in place of the Music Director. (In Shanghai and Beijing we will give only two concert programs.)

We scheduled Ms Xian Zhang to conduct Mozart's Marriage of Figaro Overture and the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto. We did so, not because she is China-born, but because of her merit. Six years ago she won first prize at the Maazel/Vilar Conductors' Competition and has in return justified the confidence the jury had in her.

The soloist, Liang Wang, we engaged to play this concerto even before he was granted tenure as first oboe of the Philharmonic.

I strongly believe it is incumbent upon established Maestros to further the careers of those who may be tomorrow's stars. I take pride in the success of Xian and Liang in Hong Kong.

The deep significance of the role of Credit Suisse as sponsor of the Philharmonic's Asian tour becomes more apparent every day. The world is undergoing a financial crisis (defaulting sub-prime mortgages and so on). These times are troubled. In such moments, classical music performed at the highest professional level is even more relevant to human beings. The response of our audiences here in the Far East is eloquent testimony to the significance attached by people to a genuine artistic experience.

We of the Philharmonic are thrilled to see our audiences on their feet at the end of concerts clamoring for more. Thank you, Credit Suisse, for making our tour possible. Our audiences will forever be in your debt.

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February 17: Stop Three: HK 

Our first two concerts at the concert hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre were very well received by the extremely cultivated Hong Kong audience. I have given tens of concerts over the last four decades at the Cultural Centre, itself a striking architectural artifact. The concert hall is in-the-round, with about thirty percent of the audience seated behind the orchestra. The effect is intimate, the acoustics warm and reverberant, the audience more discerning than ever.

Hong Kong is resplendent. Unique are its skyscrapers, bustling streets, ferry boats and hydrofoils in the harbor on their way to and from Macau (the former Portuguese coastal enclave an hour away). The mood is cautiously optimistic.
Business booms. Construction everywhere.

The junk boats are still anchored at Aberdeen, a port not far from Kowloon/Hong Kong. Fishermen, however, must now ply their trade as far off as the Philippines. Waters in the area here are gradually being fished out.

The "Jumbo" restaurant anchored at Aberdeen can serve two thousand people simultaneously. Ocean Park with its ferris wheels and loop-the-loops outdraws Disneyland.

Chinese New Year is over, celebrated in Hong Kong for only three days as opposed to seven on the Mainland. Come and gone too is Valentine's Day, now an important Chinese holiday.

The New Year's fireworks display held at Hong Kong harbour on Friday, February 8, on the second day of the New Year's celebrations, were really awesome. Four boats were anchored equidistantly between Kowloon and Hong Kong sides. A computer-programmed, synchronized display filled the skies for thirty minutes with intricate designs and kaleidoscopic colors.

At one point, from each of the four boats, rockets were shot up, spelling out 2 0 0 8.

Not the Chinese figure (estimated at 4706), in itself unimportant to the Chinese. What is important is that it's the Year of the Rat...astrologers assure everyone, a most promising one.

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February 13: Second Stop, Kaohsiung City

A banner graces the entrance of Taipei's central rail station sporting the legend:

 "THE U.N. FOR TAIWAN PEACE FOREVER."

The bullet train from Taipei in Taiwan to the southern port city of Kaohsiung took 93 minutes and made one stop: Taichung. Lots of four-story buildings there, not as colorful as those seen from the train window on the first leg of the journey, mostly flying through tunnels at 180 miles an hours: beige-painted edifices, bordering terraced farm plots, a rice paddy or two, ponds, dry riverbeds, the landscape graced with the occasional shrine. Gives way to flatland and hundreds of rice paddies all the way to Kaohsiung, a bustling city of 1,509,131 humans (according to my guide book).

Our first Horn (as in "French Horn"), Phil Meyers, played a Mozart Horn concerto as soloist with his usual panache and mastery. The NYPhil also offered the Coriolan Overture of Beethoven and Brahms' Fourth Symphony at this evening's concert, which was beamed on a large screen outside the hall on a square contiguous to the concert hall.

The mayor presented me with flowers on stage at the end of the concert (did she know it was my debut in Kaohsiung?) and then invited me and Phil to meet the cheering crowd of maybe three thousand folks who watched the concert on the giant screen.

There were two young moderators who set chants in motion (the Chinese equivalent of Hip-Hip-Hooray, concluding with "Bravo, Maestro") from atop a platform set up under the screen and facing the fans.

What a way to celebrate a debut!

Have rarely seen such enthusiasm coming from both the fans in the hall and on the square. You bet we'll return someday! 

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February 12: First Stop, Taipei 

We have given the first two concerts of the tour...in the National Concert Hall of the Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center.

This part of the world is in the grip of a cold wave. The stage was as chilly as the reception was warm. Audience profile: middle aged, professional people, with a generous sprinkling of young parents with children.

The foyer offers a spectacular 80-foot-high wall of plants and flowers, actually growing out of sod affixed to a vertical surface. A living art work.

Chiang Kai-shek...I retain childhood memories of his fame and aura...the General who fled mainland China with the art treasures of his country stowed away in Navy boats transporting his army to Formosa, now called Taiwan...and of his wife, Mme. Soong May-Ling, addressing, on his behalf, a joint session of Congress in February 1943 (almost 65 years ago to the day).

We have slowly overcome the 13-hour time change. Not a sign of fatigue in the glorious sounds my New York Philharmonic colleagues made playing Beethoven, Barber, Bizet, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Rossini and Brahms.

Today I travel south to Kaohsiung on a bullet train traveling at 180 miles an hour. I shall report tomorrow on the trip, the city (I have never been there) and its music fans.

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February 8: "Glass houses...et al."

Some folks seem to be missing the point about finger-pointers.

The United States of America has a reputation among nations as the primary defender against human rights abuses. We have traditionally been a safe-haven for the persecuted, setting an example for other nations to follow. We have, more often than not, occupied the moral high ground and are judged, and should be, by totally different standards than by those applied to countries without our tradition of respect for the individual.

Our juridical system is based on the principle "innocent until proven guilty". Much, much more is expected of us than of other nations. We Americans should indeed raise our voice against human-rights abuses outside our borders, but never give tyrannical regimes the opportunity to refer to abuses, real or alleged, committed by us.

By doing so, we would allow our primary position to be challenged and would become ineffectual in the struggle against these all-pervading abuses. No independent-thinking, non-fanatical, apolitical person (such as myself) would dream of equating our history with that of any of the tyrannical regimes presently abusing human rights in a systematic fashion.

I stand on my record of three decades of support of UN agencies devoted to the betterment of mankind: over thirty concerts in which I gave my services to raise funds for UNESCO, UNICEF, UNHCR, among others.

I wrote an opera premiered at the Covent Garden Opera House in London on May 3, 2005 based on George Orwell's searing indictment of tyranny, "1984. At its Italian premiere at La Scala on May 2, 2008, representatives of movements dedicated to defending human rights will be in attendance.

So let us continue to be vigilant at home so that those within our borders who would encroach upon our liberties, under whatever pretext, are challenged openly in forums available to us all: the media, the web (YouTube, blogs and the like), and other public spaces within our communities.

Let us continue to be able to hold our head high in the community of nations.