THE Chicago Symphony Orchestra's January 31 concert was sold out a month in advance and many people bought tickets primarily because of Riccardo Muti, the renowned Italian conductor and the orchestra's music director.
But Muti, 71, was unable to make the Asian tour because of hernia surgery.
Instead, the renowned 83-year-old conductor Lorin Maazel stepped in at the last minute to conduct in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Seoul. He was unable to rearrange his schedule to conduct in Taiwan, the first stop.
Of course, under Maazel's baton the brilliant orchestra performed brilliantly in its program of Verdi, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
"I was happily conducting the New York Philharmonic, where I used to be the music director," Maazel recalled at press conference and wide-ranging group interview in Shanghai, just hours before the performance. "I received a call from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra saying 'we are in trouble, can you help us?'"
The maestro was able to rearrange his schedule with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City; he shifted rehearsals so he could conduct the Asia tour, but could not find time to conduct in Taipei, because of his work with the philharmonic.
"Admittedly it was not an easy task, but one I was happy to assume. I and millions of people around the world greatly admire the Chicago Symphony and I consider it an honor and privilege to conduct," Maazel said.
Another reason for taking on the tour was the return to China, where he frequently conducts. "I seem to be here every six months," he said.
Forty years ago Maazel made his conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has seen many changes in that orchestra and many others over the decades.
"One of the major changes in every major world orchestra is that there are many more women musicians than there were 40 years ago," he said. Another change is the greater number of non-Americans; 11 Chinese musicians came on this Asia tour.
"What is remarkable is that despite these changes which come about very slowly, the character of the orchestra does not change," Maazel said. "I have to say after an hour of conducting the first rehearsal in Hong Kong, my God, what a sound! It's still there!"
Born in 1930 in Paris, Maazel grew up in Pittsburgh in the United States. A child prodigy, he began taking violin lessons at the age of five and conducting lessons at seven. He conducted publicly for the first time at the age of eight. By the time he was 15, he had already conducted most American orchestras, including the NBC Symphony at the invitation of Arturo Toscanini.
Maazel entered the University of Pittsburgh to study languages, mathematics and philosophy at the age of 17. In 1951, he made his debut in Europe conducting at the Massimo Bellini Theater in Catania, Italy.
Over the years, Maazel has conducted around 200 orchestras, no fewer than 7,000 concerts and operas and made more than 300 recordings, many of them receiving prestigious awards. These include the complete works of Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Mahler, Shubert, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss.
At age 83, Maazel remains busy, energetic and humorous.
Taking one day at a time is important, and so is sleeping well, he said.
"Musicians live very structured lives; we will take a worksheet and discover that we are rehearsing from 10am to 12:30am on the fourth of December in 2016," he said. "Psychologically, to think that your own life has been planned long before you've lived it is very depressing."
"I don't think about what I'm going to do in 2016, I just get on day by day and live each day," he said.
Frequent China visitor
Maazel is familiar to many classical music lovers in China, where he first conducted in 1988. Great things have happened in this remarkable country, he said.
Just last April, Maazel was in Shanghai conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 1. He will return this April with the Munich Philharmonic for a program of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Stravinsky.
That will make three appearances in Shanghai within a year. Will audiences tire? Mazeel thinks not; he always tries to make it fresh, bringing new feelings to the music.
From 1982 to 1984, he was artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, the first American to hold that position. The opera would routinely schedule performances of the same opera spread over several months and Maazel produced a different performance each time. After one performance of "La Traviata," he was asked how he managed to make each performance sound distinctive.
"I said it's not something I intend to do, I just feel differently."
As a person, he responds to the weather, pace of life, public mood, physical conditions of the singers and many other factors. He said he is very sensitive to changing environment and realities, as well as to his own changing moods.
"So, for better or for worse, I decided to give the impression that each interpretation of each concert is born at the moment," he said, "and hopefully when I come back to Shanghai, I will be able to keep that feeling of music composition and the freshness."
Mazeel is often asked whether he tires of conducting the same master works countless times.
"I always say a masterpiece never tires, it's the people who perform it or listen to it may get tired," Maazel said. As a young man he realized it was important to develop a large repertoire and become familiar with a wide range of compositions.
What he did not realize when he was a young man was that aging would bring benefits because he sees and hears things quite differently. When he interprets music, the result reflects what he has learned over many years of life, the many people he has known and the music he has played with colleagues around the world.
"The 'Eroica' (Beethoven's Symphony No. 3) I conducted today is very different from the 'Eroica' I conducted 50 years ago, which embarrasses me when I think about it. And that's the way it should be," Maazel said. "So I'm very privileged to be the professional who can grow and mature with no end in sight."
Maazel is also a well-regarded violinist and highly regarded composer.
"I will not burden the people who still believe in me as a conductor with my violin playing," he said in jest. "Actually, I still play pretty well, but I'll save it for my children who like to play music too."
He hopes for more time in the future to compose. Over the past dozen years he has composed a wide range of works. His first opera "1984" is based on George Orwell's 1948 chillingly prophetic work about the future. It was premiered in May 2005 at the Royal Opera House in London. In 2008 La Scala in Milan revived the opera and a DVD of the original London production was released that year.
"I was very flattered by the success of my opera, and was just thinking about the possibility of writing something in much lighter style," he said. "It will cheer me up and I hope to cheer up people who listen."
In 2000, as part of Maazel's 70th birthday celebrations, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered his composition "Farewells," which was well received.
Maazel has said the future of classical music is in Asia, especially in China, because of the surge of interest among young people in classical music.
"I can only confirm this in the recent experience I had, that the most important characteristic of this audience is youth," Maazel said in Shanghai.
While classical music audiences are aging in Europe and the United States, they are young in Asia.
"It's lovely to know that there are young people out there who love music and are supporting it and enthusiastic about it," he said.
At Maazel's estate home in Castleton, Virginia, he launched the Castleton Festival in the summer of 2009. The festival is part of the The Chateauville Foundation founded by Maazel and his wife Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, which aims to nurture young artists.
This summer the festival celebrates its fifth anniversary and young people from around the world will gather to play symphonic music and to play and sing opera. The estate contains two opera houses "where young audiences are trained to enjoy classical music properly."
On April 26, Maazel will conduct the Munich Philharmonic at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center in a program of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with young Chinese pianist Zhang Haochen; Tchaikovsky's overture to "Romeo and Juliet" and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." He is artistic director of the Munich Philharmonic this season.
"It's a credit to the enormous confidence I have in the belief in classical music in this country, so when I'm asked, I can't say no," Maazel said.