In the world of classical music, child prodigies tend to be instrumentalists, composers, or in the case of a genius like Mozart, both. Rare is the child who dares to conduct. It’s one thing to blaze through a Chopin polonaise on your own, quite another to coax a compelling performance of Beethoven or Brahms from an orchestra of grizzled musicians five or six times your age. Imagine, then, the audacity of Lorin Maazel, who as a chubby 11-year-old ascended the podium to lead the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
It wasn’t Maazel’s conducting debut. In 1938, at the age of eight, he led the University of Idaho Orchestra in a performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony—having learned the piece only the night before. The following year brought concerts at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, and the New York World’s Fair, but soon he was moving on to more impressive engagements: with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at Leopold Stokowski’s invitation, and the New York Philharmonic in 1940.
Maybe the NBC musicians knew all of this when Arturo Toscanini invited Maazel to conduct them in the summer of 1941. Most likely, they did not care. As the story goes, when the boy arrived for his first rehearsal (dressed in shorts, no less), the musicians began sucking on lollipops in a great show of contempt. Maazel was unfazed. When a wrong note sounded soon after rehearsal began, the conductor—who had perfect pitch and who was moreover conducting from memory—stopped the orchestra and corrected the mistake. It was a seminal moment, and the orchestra was slowly won over.
Maazel was only 15 when he decided to give up conducting, intent on becoming a writer. Of course, he would return to the podium soon enough, embarking on a long and at times controversial career that saw him lead the world’s greatest orchestras. He died in July at the age of 84. In a culture in which far too many prodigies burn out by 20, unable to cope with the burdens placed upon them—by themselves, by parents, by a fickle public eager to champion the next great wunderkind—it cannot be ignored that Maazel was one of the lucky ones: he endured.