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Conductor Lorin Maazel, former PSO music director, dies at 84

| Sunday, July 13, 2014, 1:33 p.m.
Castleton Festival
Lorin Maazel, former Pittsburgh Symphony music director, conducting during the Castleton Festival Orchestra.

A child prodigy who led his first orchestra at 7, Lorin Maazel spent more than seven decades establishing an international reputation as a musical genius who led from the podium with a razor-sharp focus on detail and an uncompromising thirst for perfection.

Maazel, a conductor and composer who performed as a violinist and later directed the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, died on Sunday in his home in Virginia. He was 84.

“He was a giant; he was a titan,” said Andres Cardenes, a former PSO concertmaster and a longtime friend and colleague of Maazel. “I learned about the world of violin playing from my violin teacher, but I learned about the universe of music from Lorin Maazel. He did everything spectacularly.”

Maazel died at Castleton Farms from complications of pneumonia, according to a statement by The Castleton Festival, an annual event that Maazel co-founded with his wife in 2009. Maazel was rehearsing and preparing for the festival at the time of his death.

Maazel led nearly 200 orchestras in at least 7,000 opera and concert performances during 72 years at the podium, according to a biography on his website.

“The world of music has lost a great man whose legacy will long echo within the walls of Heinz Hall,” Gov. Tom Corbett wrote in a statement that noted that Maazel spent some of his youth in Pittsburgh.

Born in Paris but raised in the United States, Maazel took his first violin lesson at 5 and within two years was invited by Arturo Toscanini to conduct the NBC Symphony.

His New York Philharmonic debut was five years later, in 1942, and by 15 he had conducted most of the major American orchestras.

An international star, Maazel held Pittsburgh close to his heart, friends and colleagues said. He studied language, mathematics and philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and played his violin with the PSO to help pay tuition. He led the PSO from 1988 to 1996.

“He was one of the greatest conductors this country ever produced,” said Robert Page, who worked with Maazel as choral director in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. “He was a perfectionist, he was compassionate, he was a supreme musician. He had one thing in mind, and that was the music and communicating the drama to the audience. He was one of the truly great men of the 20th century.”

Maazel had a reputation as being a difficult — often cantankerous — leader, perhaps as a byproduct of his brilliance.

Cardenes said critics simply did not comprehend Maazel's greatness.

“It's a lonely and isolated life to be that brilliant and knowledgeable,” Cardenes said. “For the 25 years I knew him, the same adjectives were always applied to him: mercurial, distant, irascible, complicated, cold. But anybody who actually knew him, if you were able to get close to him, you'd find he was a regular human being, psychologically.

“He was flawed, he was complicated, just like the rest of us. The only difference was that he was a genius. People didn't understand that, and it's too bad, because he was an amazing human being.”

Beyond Pittsburgh, Maazel served as artistic director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, general manager of the Vienna State Opera and music director of the Radio Symphony of Berlin, the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic.

He elevated the PSO to levels of excellence that reverberate still, said Dick Simmons, chairman of the symphony board of trustees.

“He hired about 30 percent of the orchestra during his tenure here from 1987 to '96, and went on to great things with other orchestras. Remarkable guy. Remarkable musician,” Simmons said. “The music world will miss him.”

Sidney Stark of Squirrel Hill began attending Pittsburgh Symphony concerts in 1939, “and he was the absolute highlight,” Stark said. “He took the orchestra to the highest level and brought a personal illumination to everything he conducted.”

In addition to his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, Maazel is survived by four daughters, three sons and four grandchildren.

Staff writer Mark Kanny and the The Associated Press contributed to this report. Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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