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Taking a Turn for the Better : Music: Conductor Lorin Maazel, appearing with the Pittsburgh Symphony in Cerritos and Costa Mesa, enjoys calm after tussles.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You might say that things are going well for conductor Lorin Maazel.

This past year, he celebrated the birth of his seventh child, his third with German actress Dietlinde Turban. Music director of his hometown orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, since 1988, Maazel was also named chief conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio in his wife’s native Munich. And he picked up a Grammy Award for his collaboration with Pittsburgh and cellist Yo-Yo Ma for their recording of works by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

“I am enjoying everything more,” agreed the 63-year-old Maazel, whose career to this point could hardly be described as serene.

Maazel will lead the Pittsburgh Symphony in performances tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and, in a concert sponsored by the Orange County Philharmonic Society, Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

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The Cerritos program features works by Rachmaninoff (Symphony No. 3), Stravinsky (“Song of the Nightingale”) and Bartok (“Miraculous Mandarin”), while more standard fare by Brahms (Symphony No. 3) and Ravel (“Rapsodie Espagnole,” Bolero) is on line for Costa Mesa.

Whether Maazel has found a sea of tranquillity, or merely an island, it has to be a nice change of pace: Consider his tenure at the Cleveland Orchestra (1972-82), cited by critical observers as a decade of tussles and decline; his abrupt departure as artistic director and general manager from the Vienna State Opera (1982-84) after 18 months, and the recent brouhaha in the European press over Maazel’s purported annual salary--estimates run to nearly $4 million--with the Radio Symphony.

Maazel has dismissed those figures as “wild.” (Less fuss has been made about it in the United States, perhaps given the commonality of basketball or hockey players who make double, triple or quadruple that amount.)

Meanwhile, feathers have been smoothed in Vienna: He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, last year at Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center as part of the orchestra’s 150th anniversary tour.

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He feels posterity will set the record straight about Cleveland, too.

By the time music director George Szell died in 1970, “The (Cleveland) orchestra had lost its place, had faded from sight,” recalled Maazel, reached by phone in Pittsburgh. “It was my job to rebuild it. When I left, subscriptions were up to 90% (from less than 30%), and I’d re-established a recording program.

“Problems at Pittsburgh have been considerably less dramatic,” he added. “Changes in personnel have been important but not critical. I found a very good orchestra set to go.”

Maazel should know, having conducted more than 130 orchestras.

Today, he conducts opera only at Milan’s La Scala, and, in accepting the Bavarian Radio Symphony post, announced he will increasingly limit his concert performances to Pittsburgh, Munich and Vienna.

Though he feels comparisons between orchestras can be an exercise in futility--"You’re only as good as your last performance,” he said--he was persuaded to give an assessment of the Pittsburgh band regarding both character and quality.

“It’s the (American) orchestra that is closest to the European darkness of color,” he said. “It had a tradition, mainly a German tradition, long before I came on the scene.

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“Today there’s a good mix of older players who keep that tradition alive and younger virtuoso players who really do justice to the difficulties of the repertory.”

Maazel began to study conducting in Pittsburgh and, at age 9, appeared as conductor at the New York World’s Fair. At 29, he became the youngest conductor and the first American to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival. His opera films, Joseph Losey’s “Don Giovanni” (1979) and Francesco Rosi’s “Carmen” (1984), broke new ground in the genre’s popularization.

Maazel now maintains homes in Monte Carlo, Pittsburgh and Munich and a farm in Virginia--the family eats “nothing but home-grown; our radishes look awful and taste marvelous,” he said--and where he hopes to make his own wine, “without sulfites.” He harbors passions for chess as well as fine wine, and has a strong background in mathematics and literature.

Another of his loves is philosophy, which seems to carry into almost any topic he discusses:

* On being a conductor: “I am a human who conducts, not a conductor who tries to be a human. It’s not a profession I would choose, it’s a profession that chose me because I have an odd combination of gifts. I love music, I love to make music, as opposed to conducting. Exercising power, standing up there, bowing in front of all these people, all the perks that go with the job--these are the things I don’t like about it.”

* On the business of music: “Most people think of music as being noble, something sacred, above the influence of the less savory qualities of our nature. Unfortunately that’s not true, and if you love music, it’s distressing to see it function under people whose character you don’t approve. The great thing is that all of that is forgotten when you go to make music.”

* On the future of classical music in the United States: If it looks bleak, he said, it’s because “everything looks bleak here. There is something wrong with us, starting with health care and infant mortality. Everywhere else in the world the ones who support classical music are the young people. Summer at the London ‘Proms’ (pops concerts) you have 7,000 people, and they’re youngsters--4,000 stand for three hours. We’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do.”

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One way the Pittsburgh orchestra is reaching out to young people is with a televised “Side by Side” concert where high-school instrumentalists play “side by side” with orchestra members.

A devoted family man, and again a new daddy, Maazel more than once said--and clearly only half joking--"I’d much rather talk about children.”

With the mention of the “Side by Side” program, finally he could. He specifically addressed how to go about cultivating children’s natural love of music.

“Most important, of course, is just hearing it, and encouraging them to play some kind of instrument for which they have some kind of talent,” Maazel said. “While 15% are tone deaf, most people do have some special musical aptitude. A lip is made to play a flute. A ‘pianist’s hand’ can be recognized from an X-ray. The physical question is not the only element, but it’s one that should not be overlooked.”

* Lorin Maazel leads the Pittsburgh Symphony in Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90; and Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole” and Bolero on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $15 to $45. Presented by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. (714) 553-2422. The orchestra also plays Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, Stravinsky’s “Song of the Nightingale” and Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. SOLD OUT. (800) 300-4345.


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