It would be rash to make snap predictions about the New York Philharmonic's immediate future, now that Lorin Maazel has begun his tenure as the orchestra's music director. One fact, though, seems clear. This is more likely to be a defining moment for Maazel than for the Philharmonic, which, after eleven years of Kurt Masur's stewardship, has never been in better technical shape or more securely poised to deliver artistic excellence. Maazel, on the other hand, arrives as something of a puzzle, despite decades of prominence on the international scene and a busy career that dates back to his days as a child prodigy (he first conducted the New York Philharmonic 60 years ago, at age 12).
Although long admired for his sharp mind and virtuoso baton technique, Maazel also has the reputation of being a prickly personality whose often willful music-making and troubled associations with high-profile institutions always seem to leave him on the other side of greatness. Perhaps the Solomonic wisdom and mellow insights that presumably come to all conductors in their old age will eventually descend, even on this contentious spirit. Maazel's own public pronouncements have so far radiated nothing but sweetness and light, so right now prospects could not be rosier.
They were, at least, until the maestro's opening concerts, which included a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that left this listener's feelings of goodwill sorely tested. Even the choice of this elevated score, usually reserved to mark solemn occasions rather than to celebrate the investiture of a conductor, seemed vaguely in bad taste. The interpretation featured many of Maazel's finest qualities: textural definition and clarity, taut rhythmic energy, awesomely precise articulation. But it was also drained of expressive warmth, emotional depth, and any sense of mystery, all capped by a coarse rendition of the inspirational choral finale that sounded positively vulgar. Aside from René Pape's heartfelt declamation of the bass's opening pronouncement, the tentative solo singing (Marina Mescheriakova, Jill Grove, and Michael Schade) only made matters worse.
Maazel and the orchestra did perform one good deed by preceding the symphony with the premiere of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned in honor of the heroes and in memory of the victims of September 11. Even that gesture was compromised by the deplorable decision to exclude Adams's score from the first-night gala and play it the next evening, as if to say that such unsettling music was inappropriate for a festive opening program. Excuses were made -- mostly lack of rehearsal time -- but they all sounded pretty lame, and an important opportunity was lost.
In any case, although he wondered if it was too soon to create an adequate musical tribute for this tragic event, Adams has risen nobly to the task and produced a work of real eloquence. In addition to chorus and orchestra, the score uses taped voices and ambient city sounds with texts consisting of phrases from missing-person posters and memorials. Charles Ives is the role model here, not just the references to that composer's Unanswered Question but also in the mystical blurring of impressionistic harmonies and choral-instrumental textures that gradually build to a crushing climax before suddenly fading into stillness. Adams wanted to create the musical equivalent of a majestic cathedral where, he says, one finds a "memory space, a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions." And that is precisely what he has accomplished in this richly imagined, skillfully crafted score. Here Maazel's technical mastery resulted in a performance that seemed close to perfection, suggesting that complex contemporary music, at least, is safe in the hands of the Philharmonic's new commander in chief.