Peter Maag; Swiss Conductor Known as Specialist in Mozart

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Peter Maag, a Swiss conductor best known for his well-crafted interpretations of the works of Mozart, has died. He was 81.

Maag died on April 16 in Verona, Italy.

Born in St. Gall, Switzerland, Maag was the son of a former Lutheran pastor who became a philosophy professor and music critic. His mother was a concert violinist. At the urging of his father, Maag studied theology and philosophy at several Swiss universities. But he also studied the piano, and music became his calling.

After leaving the piano bench for the podium, Maag was a theater conductor during the war years. He later was principal conductor at Dusseldorf, Germany, from 1952 to 1955 and general music director at the Bonn Opera from 1955 to 1959.


Maag’s American debut was with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1959. He went on to conduct at the Chicago Lyric Opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Maag took a detour at the peak of his conducting career to enter a Tibetan monastery. He stayed there for two years.

“I decided it was time to retire because I was having too much success,” he said. “Those two years spent meditating and praying in a small cell purified my soul.”

Upon his return in 1984, he became chief conductor of Switzerland’s Berne Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1991.


In Southern California, he conducted at the Hollywood Bowl.

“Maag is an old-school no-nonsense professional,” wrote Martin Bernheimer, then The Times’ music critic. Bernheimer gave Maag high marks for his work during a 1995 evening of Mozart at the Bowl.

“He knows that less is usually more when it comes to 18th century rhetoric. He doesn’t push, refuses to exaggerate. He savors the subtle nuance, cherishes the lyrical flight. He understands the essential secret: Mozart always wrote vocal music, even when the voices on duty happened to belong to instruments.”

In Maag’s later years, he spent most of his time in Italy, where he founded a workshop for young conductors and composers in Treviso.

He is survived by his second wife, Marika, a son and a daughter.