NEW YORK - Half a century after Arturo Toscanini's death, conductor Lorin Maazel was handed one of Maestro's batons.
Maazel used it Tuesday night to help celebrate the immortal legacy of the Italian titan of the podium.
Toscanini, who died at 89 on Jan. 16, 1957, is venerated for his unflagging dedication to excellence in the arts and undaunted defiance of fascism and Nazism before and during World War II. He was the Philharmonic's principal conductor from 1928 to 1936 and then led the NBC Symphony of the Air from 1937 to 1954.
"I am very touched, very honored to have this as a gift, and I shall not tarnish the image of the great maestro by using it more than once, which would be now," Maazel told the audience at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. "We love you, maestro, and know wherever you are, we are thinking of you."
Then, the 77-year-old Maazel picked up the stick and led the youthful Symphonica Toscanini orchestra in a poignant performance of the intermezzo from Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."
The unprogrammed number was one of seven works performed at the gala concert that featured this enthusiastic Rome-based ensemble and Maazel's New York Philharmonic.
Founded last May and led by Maazel, the 114-member Symphonica Toscanini is on a world tour of cities where its namesake performed. The U.S. part started Jan. 11 at the Italian Embassy in Washington and ends in Berkeley, Calif., Jan. 28. Performances are also scheduled for Morocco in June, South America in August, Japan in September and Israel in November.
The moment the musicians walked on Avery Fisher's stage, their faces lit up with smiles of wonderment. Their energetic performance in their first piece, Respighi's "Pines of Rome," left many in the audience feeling the same, even before its exhilarating conclusion. Principal clarinetist Giovanni Picciati took a well-deserved bow for his solos in the ethereal third movement of the work, whose U.S. premiere was presented by Toscanini and the Philharmonic 81 years earlier.
The concert began inauspiciously, with Maazel leading the Philharmonic in Richard Strauss' "Don Juan." Perhaps because the stage was extended seven rows into the audience to accommodate the combined orchestras later in the program, the sound was thin and blaring. It did settle down, and the musicians played vigorously.
Maazel, who once conducted for the maestro when he was 11, avoided his tendency to overmanage the music _ perhaps in deference to Toscanini's insistence on literal readings.
After intermission, 77-year-old Walfredo Toscanini introduced a vintage video showing the man he knew simply as "Grandfather" leading the NBC Symphony in Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" in 1951.
"I believe it demonstrates his dedication to realizing the intent of a composer in a performance, even when in this case the heat of the early television lights nearly blinded him," Walfredo Toscanini said before the audience watched his 84-year-old grandfather grimacing and perspiring but giving a flawless performance.
Next up was the Symphonica and German singer Rene Pape, subbing for another Renee _ soprano Renee Fleming, who was ill.
Demonstrating why he is one of the best of the basses, Pape was wonderfully dramatic in his three arias _ Verdi's "Studia il passo, o mio figlio" ("Hurry my son, let's escape,") from "Macbeth"; "Ella giammai m'amo" ("I believe she never loved me") from "Don Carlo"; and Mozart's catalog aria from "Don Giovanni." The second work also featured heartfelt cello solos by Konstantin Pfiz.
The final piece was Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini," a fantasy based on Dante's "Divine Comedy." Here, Maazel led an orchestra of some 200 musicians in an awesome depiction of the passions of illicit love and the power of purgatory. One got the feeling that the Philharmonic musicians learned as much from their exuberant younger colleagues as they did from the veterans.
After it was over, many of the Symphonica players lingered on stage taking pictures of each other.
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