Castleton founder, renowned conductor Lorin Maazel dead at 84

Conductor Lorin Maazel: 1930-2014.
Conductor Lorin Maazel: 1930-2014. (Credit: Bill Bernstein)


CASTLETON, Va., July 14, 2014 − Heartbreaking news struck the Castleton Festival Sunday as the annual musical event began this season’s final week. Internationally renowned Maestro Lorin Maazel, the festival’s founder, director, mentor and chief conductor, passed away from complications due to pneumonia on July 13, 2014.

music with Castleton Orchestra concertmaster Paçalin Pavici.
Lorin Maazel (R) discusses the music with Castleton Orchestra concertmaster Paçalin Pavici on June 11, 2014. (Credit: Sarah Cohn)

He had not been in the best of health this year since early spring, but had been working with his young musicians at the Festival as much as he could before succumbing to illness. His passing, at his picturesque, historic home in Virginia’s rolling Shenandoah foothills, roughly half-way between Warrenton and Little Washington, marked the end of a lengthy and spectacular musical career marked by countless high points, although not always free of controversy.

Over the years, Maestro Maazel served in numerous conducting posts at the highest level around the world. He had been Artistic Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and General Manager of the Vienna State Opera, Music Director of the Radio Symphony of Berlin, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Munich Philharmonic.

He closed out his formal conducting career by leading the New York Philharmonic from 2002-2009, at which point he directed his still-considerable energy toward launching the annual Castleton Festival on the grounds of his estate, something he had been planning, along with his wife Dietlinde, for many years since acquiring the estate in the early 1990s.

Lorin Maazel, a second-generation American, was born in Paris on March 6, 1930, the son of highly musical Jewish-American parents. He was primarily raised at his parents’ American home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Identified early as a genuine child prodigy, young Lorin began to study the violin at the age of five, and actually began studying the art of conducting when he was only seven, making his conducting debut at the age of 8. Almost in the manner of another child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he conducted most of the major American orchestras, including an appearance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, where he had been invited to conduct by the notoriously cranky and exacting Arturo Toscanini, that orchestra’s founder and director.

According to sources, Lorin Maazel conducted more than 150 orchestras in thousands of concert and opera performances, making numerous recordings along the way even in an era of dwindling classical recording opportunities. Ten of his recordings, with various orchestras, were awarded the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque over his career.

Maestro Maazel was also an active composer, particularly in his later years, but his compositions generally failed to achieve wide success, including an opera, “1984,” based on George Orwell’s eponymous novel.

Maazel’s career was generally a great success wherever he appeared, but his career was not entirely without controversy. Following the death of legendary Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell and the unsuccessful interim appointment of avant-garde French conductor Pierre Boulez, Maazel was appointed to take over the helm of that orchestra as its new music director in 1972.

"Porgy and Bess" cover art.
Cover art from the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” recorded by Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra. (Original cover art from Decca recording)

Although his eclectic interpretations of many of the standard classics bothered some who still longed for Szell’s more classical approach, Maazel achieved numerous triumphs with the Cleveland, including, somewhat astonishingly, the first complete recording of George Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess, employing an all-African American cast save for its mixed chorus. It is still a standard in many musical recording collections today.

Maazel held the Cleveland post for ten years, through 1982. But his relationships with the orchestra’s musicians became increasingly acrid and he apparently departed under some pressure from the board, possibly somewhat displeased with his regular programming of difficult, modern works as opposed to Szell’s more standard repertoire. Relations with the Cleveland organization remained frosty for years after. He had finally been scheduled to guest conduct the orchestra in 2006, but ultimately ultimately did not appear, reportedly due to illness.

In addition, Maazel was regarded by some musicians as a prickly taskmaster, picky about minute details and often difficult to work with or please, although in truth, this charge has been leveled against many a great conductor including Szell. This writer had an opportunity to interview Maestro Maazel a number of years ago and found him rather cold and disinterested as a subject. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for someone with Maazel’s extraordinary skills to find it difficult to relate to others not perceived to be operating on his or her level.

Much later in his career, Maazel ran into an entirely different kind of buzz saw in 2008: a political one. The controversy occurred when he took the New York Philharmonic to North Korean in a gesture of goodwill, performing a concert broadcast locally on North Korea’s state television station and transmitted internationally as well. Some of his own musicians had been opposed to the trip to the rogue country, although most seemed to concur with their music director’s decision. But Maazel was blasted by some pundits and media outlets, in part due to the conductor’s known distaste for the Bush Administration at the time, placing his and the Philharmonic’s North Korean trip under something of a cloud.

(Below: Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic in an arrangement of Korean folksong “Arirang,” during their 2008 concert appearance in Pyongyang, North Korea.)

Nonetheless, over the years, the audience usually applauded what Maazel had to offer, or he would not have reached the kind of career pinnacle many conductors can only dream of. According to the Castleton Festival’s online obituary notice, “The Maestro was awarded Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur twice in France, the Bundesverdienstkreuz in Germany, the Premio Abbiati in Italy, the Commander of the Lion in Finland, the Großes Goldenes Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich as well as the Honorary Membership of the Wiener Philharmoniker and Wiener Staatsoper in Austria, the Honorary Life Membership of the Israel Philharmonic in Israel.”

In addition, the announcement notes−perhaps with a fond wink−”together with Mae West and Pope John Paul II,” he was awarded “the title of Kentucky Colonel.”

Maazel was always noted for his tremendous energy and willingness to travel, even as he advanced in years. The Castleton announcement notes, “In the last year he maintained an active conducting schedule, leading 111 concerts in 2013 alone, from Oman to Munich.” His sudden departure from this frenetic kind of scheduling this past spring is what set his friends and admirers to worrying about his health as 2014 progressed.

But in spite of all the orchestras, international accolades and occasional notoriety Maazel won over the years, the Castleton Festival ultimately became his project of a lifetime. The Festival’s announcement of the Maestro’s passing describes his relationship with the Festival thusly:

With his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, he founded the Castleton Festival in 2009 and has held annual summer performances and training seminars since then in theatres he built on his Virginia farm. Recognizing the value of mentoring he himself benefited from as a youth, Maestro Maazel established the Castleton Festival with a mission: it would be a “vista-opener,” in his words, to nurture young musicians through mentoring and performing, and would draw audiences to performances showcasing young talent bringing fresh energy to classical music alongside established virtuosos such as Denyce Graves and Sir James Galway to Jeremy Irons and Lady Helen Mirren.

Maestro Lorin Maazel, taken during the 2010 Castleton Festival.
Maestro Lorin Maazel, taken during the 2010 Castleton Festival. (Courtesy Castleton Festival)

This description is modest to a fault. The Festival boldly went ahead with its opening season on the heels of the stock market’s final and most violent crash in March of 2009, its lowest point during what many now call “The Great Recession.” That recession did, and still does, wreak havoc with nearly all performing arts endowments and budgets. Yet the skilled and persuasive Lorin Maazel somehow found a way to launch his new festival anyway, driving it towards the point that today, it’s increasingly showing up on music festival radar screens across the country, no mean feat in an era when many well-known orchestras and opera companies have ceased to be. In the teeth of a major economic disaster, this festival is a social, fiscal and musical achievement of great note.

The festival also marks another important point in classical music, an art form increasingly unknown to young people in the 21st century due in large part to the public schools’ complete abandonment of Western classical traditions as a key topic for introduction and study, particularly in high school. Its emphasis on training already-excellent young musicians and opera singers, similar to the long-lived Interlochen festival near Traverse City, Michigan, provides study and performance opportunities for young people while also allowing others in the audience to experience, perhaps for the first time, their heritage of Western classical music.

Maestro Maazel clearly understood that perpetuating our musical heritage was of key importance, and thus chose to open another front in that effort near the end of his career. In so doing, he also showed another side of his personality. He blossomed as a mentor to many of his youthful charges, as many have remarked, demonstrating a warmth and encouragement that sometimes seemed missing in his professional career.

Castleton Theatre House.
Smaller programs are performed at Castleton’s intimate Theatre House. (Credit: Leslie Maazel)

“Addressing the audience at the June 28, 2014 opening night of the Castleton Festival,” notes the Castleton announcement alluding to the conductor’s brief appearance at the very beginning of this year’s festival, “Maestro Maazel described working with the young orchestra and singers as a “more than a labor of love – a labor of joy.”

But Maazel perhaps stated his Castleton objectives best in a quote just posted on his Festival’s main web page:

Maestro Lorin Maazel (R) and his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel.
Maestro Lorin Maazel (R) and his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel. (Credit: Molly Peterson)

I have always believed that the arts, per se, and their exponents, artists, have a broader role to play in the public arena. But it must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan and free of issue-specific agendas. It is a role of the highest possible order; bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold.

Maestro Maazel is survived by his daughters Anjali Maazel and Daria Maazel Steketee; son Ilann Maazel and daughter Fiona Maazel; his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel−who will likely continue to helm the Castleton Festival organization in the coming years; their sons Orson and Leslie, and their daughter Tara, and four grandchildren, Kiran, Owen, Calypso, and Sahara.

The Festival notes that “friends wishing to honor Maestro Maazel may make a charitable donation to his legacy project, the nonprofit foundation for young performers, The Castleton Festival.”

New York Philharmonic Orchestra 
performs Korean traditional folk song “Arirang” in Pyong Yang, North Korea, in Feb. 25, 2008,

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17
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