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The Maestro Business

Maazel Tov: Lorin Maazel enjoying another well-remunerated performance with the New York Philharmonic. Image by CHRIS LEE

Ever since conductors’ salaries began to resemble those of industry CEOs, it was only a matter of time before the worlds of music and business intertwined more incestuously. Printed reports inform us that the New York Philharmonic’s departing music director, Lorin Maazel, earned $2.8 million from that orchestra alone in 2006, and James Levine possibly did even better, pocketing $3.5 million from the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony.

Yet even more than their salaries, some businessmen seem to envy the power trip that is symbolized by standing in front of 100 musicians, baton in hand. The magazine publisher, Mahler researcher and amateur musician Gilbert Kaplan raised some hackles last December when he negotiated to conduct a Mahler symphony with the New York Philharmonic, sparking a player protest. A Philharmonic trombonist despisingly wrote a blog terming Kaplan’s career as guest conductor a “woefully sad farce.”

Despite these ominous developments, there is a new attempt to link conducting with the business world: Roger Nierenberg’s “Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening” (Portfolio). Since 1995 Nierenberg, who has led the Jacksonville Symphony and Stamford Symphony orchestras, has presented a “management-awareness seminar” that he calls The Music Paradigm. Business leaders are invited to sit in with an orchestra to learn that a “maestro doesn’t micromanage, but encourages others to develop their own solutions,” and that a “maestro leads by listening. When people sense genuine open-mindedness, they offer more of their talent.”

However valid these notions may be in management seminars, the greatest past conductors of symphonic music, from Toscanini to Cantelli, have rightly been termed “dictators of the baton,” and touchy-feely approaches to leading a group of often surly and recalcitrant musicians usually results even today in un-listenably wimpy performances.

A case in point where conductorial arrogance has paid off in a big way is the often haughty and loftier-than-thou Maazel, born in 1930 to American Jewish parents in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, and raised in the United States. A cool, masterful performer, Maazel has had an illustrious career marked by genuine highlights, like a high-flying 1956 Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Solomon Cutner, newly issued from Guild CDs. Yet elsewhere, as on a new DVD of the Verdi Requiem on Medici Arts, Maazel can seem detached and workaday in approach. A flutist who played under Maazel for several years once told me, “He might have been expert in different jobs, such as a businessman or politician, but there is nothing specifically musical about him.”

I well recall the first time I saw Maazel offstage. In the 1990s, I was crossing the lobby of Monte Carlo’s Hôtel de Paris when I heard someone angrily hollering into a courtesy phone, shouting out improbably large numbers in fluent Italian. When I looked more closely, I saw it was Maestro Maazel, possibly discussing his conducting fees with an agent. His later endorsements for Rolex watches would have made even an exhibitionist like Leonard Bernstein gag.

This impression of materialism was bolstered by the Maazel-Vilar Conductors’ Competition in 2002, bankrolled by Alberto Vilar, a Cuban-American investor and philanthropist who last year was tried and convicted on charges of money laundering, investment adviser fraud, securities fraud, wire fraud and mail fraud.

A newer Maazel venture in self-promotion, the Castleton Festival, his own mini-Bayreuth launched on his 550-acre estate in Virginia, looks likely to have a more favorable outcome, based on reviews of its first season this past summer. Yet, an abiding sourness makes Maazel’s ongoing activities retain something of the sterile, Machiavellian air more usually associated with business deals than with music making.

Fortunately, the same cannot be said of Zubin Mehta, another conductor renowned for his career success, as well as for links with industry and showbiz. With a new memoir out from Amadeus Press, “Zubin Mehta: The Score of My Life,” the Israel Philharmonic music director for life (since 1981) and ex-music director of the New York Philharmonic (1978–1991), born in 1936, retains a joyful exuberance that is still disarming. Harshly criticized for some of his flamboyant and showboating orchestral performances, Mehta nevertheless is capable of pleasant surprises — like a new, carefully calibrated Mahler Fifth Symphony on the German label Farao Classics, or a 1980 recording, reissued on CD by Sony Classical, featuring violinists Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman in an unexpectedly no-nonsense Bach Double Concerto. In recent years, Mehta has also been able to channel his outsized personality and taste for celebratory gestures into the naturally grandiose domain of opera, as new DVDs of a 2007 performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (on TDK) and a 2006 Beethoven “Fidelio” (on Euroarts) prove.

Readers of “Zubin Mehta: The Score of My Life” will find an amusing narrative that could be a model of how conductors may hobnob with businessmen or Hollywood stars without actually aspiring to either of these job categories. Mehta retains a wide-eyed innocent’s approach to events in his own life, such as when Bernstein trumps him by giving a famous celebratory concert after Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, on Mount Scopus, the very spot where Mehta sought to give a similar concert. Bernstein compounds the injustice decades later in 1987, when he offers Mehta lethal advice, given their shared bombastic temperaments, about conducting Mahler, telling the younger maestro “not to shy away from Mahler’s occasional vulgarities, particularly in the first movement. He thought I was too tame during some of the more bombastic moments.”

Other pages of Mehta’s memoirs are simply untrue, such as when he claims that Arthur Rubinstein’s piano playing was “technically perfect,” a claim with which not even Rubinstein would have agreed. He also erroneously describes the Jewish pianist Rudolf Serkin as having “fled Austria just in time” to survive the Holocaust, whereas in fact, Serkin moved to Switzerland in 1933, from which in 1939 he relocated to America. Despite occasional errors in performance or fact, Mehta always gives the impression of being a warmhearted, expressive human being, not a salamander-eyed financial machine.

As spearhead of one of the most successful ongoing fundraising operations for any orchestra in the world, American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Mehta has not abandoned an appealing modesty; his memoirs recount more performance disasters than most famous musicians would like to recall. Mehta also admirably states, “I like speaking up for minorities.” He was born in Bombay into the minority Parsi community, which numbers around 80,000 people in India, a country with a population of 1.2 billion. Being an eternal underdog is one way for even a financially successful conductor to retain a form of humility that is essential for artistic creativity, creating a genuine musical paradigm that is more than just a management training tool.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

Watch Zubin Mehta Conducting Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”:

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