"No, I don't think there's a crisis in classical music. There's never been more than five percent of the population seriously interested in any of the arts, and five percent is double the number now that it was 60 years ago when I was young."
So says Lorin Maazel, principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and in Taipei this week for two concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), one in Taipei tonight, the other in Hsinchu tomorrow.
Maazel, mentioning Asia in particular, added that there were young instrumentalists coming up everywhere and that they were going to champion the music they loved into the future. Pop music was all very well, and was very much a part of the culture of every American, he said. But some people were getting tired of its frequent triviality and welcomed something more complex when they came across it.
The New York Philharmonic is one of the world's top four or five orchestras. It's certainly the US' oldest, even though New York can nowadays boast over 20 classical orchestras, professional and amateur. It's also an orchestra that during its 69th season (1910-11) was conducted by Gustav Mahler, and on a much earlier occasion almost, but not quite, by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. (When he was in New York, Tchaikovsky conducted the rival New York Symphony Orchestra, though this was to amalgamate with the Philhar-monic in 1928). Arturo Toscanini became its principal conductor in 1929, followed by Leonard Bernstein and a host of other famous names.
Unbelievable as it may sound, Maazel first conducted his famous New York ensemble at the age of eleven. He was an infant prodigy and was also invited to conduct Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra while still an adolescent. The maestro sat and listened, and then declared himself impressed.
The program for both Taiwan concerts will be all-Russian -- Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet overture and Violin Concerto, plus Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in its famous orchestration by Maurice Ravel.
The violin soloist is the 23-year-old virtuoso Lidia Baich, someone who features on an Internet site called "The Ultimate Guide to the Hottest Women in Classical Music." She was in Taipei two years ago when she played Beethoven's Violin Concerto, also with the NSO. Like Maazel (who called Taiwan "an amazing country") she said she was glad to be back.
The works to be played may be familiar pieces, but at least that very familiarity will be useful in seeing how different a great conductor can make of them sound.
Is Tchaikovsky's music characterized by a "brutal gaudiness" as one historian has suggested? The reviewer of the first performance of his Violin Concerto who wrote that "the violin is no longer played; it is beaten black and blue wasn't that far from the truth if a repeat of the lyrical euphony of Felix Mendelsohhn's concerto was what he'd been expecting. But it's also a brilliantly inventive display of instrumental acrobatics.
"It's become a compulsory exhibition piece for any international virtuoso," said Maazel, Baich adding that she adored it, and that its having been written in just 11 days proved Tchaikovsky was a genius. "Inspired," said Maazel, adding tartly "though that word isn't much in use these days."
Pictures at an Exhibition began as piano pieces, each purportedly describing a different painting. But when in the 20th century Ravel applied his sophisticated French sensibility to the peasant-inspired Russian original in re-scoring it for full orchestra, something essentially new was conceived. This is the version invariably played these days.