Conductors of orchestras are said to be (mostly) men of tremendous ego. Even Toscanini, who has come down to us as a brilliant sweet old man, was -- how shall I say this? -- terribly egocentric, and with a horrible temper besides. But he was a democrat and, by the way, also an Italian Catholic Zionist.
Lorin Maazel has not come down to us as a sweet old man. And his irritable persona is regularly visited on the New York Philharmonic. But his appearance in public today was not at a concert. It was as the author of a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Why We'll Play Pyonyang." Now, North Korea is probably the most cruel and benighted regime in the northern hemisphere. Compared to this dynastic communist regime, Burma must be paradise. Certainly no comparison.
This is a piece full of "moi." "When I was conducting Russian orchestras..." "Driving to East Berlin and back during my tenure as music director of the Deutsche Opera..." "On my way to check out a Felsenstein production at the Unter Den Linden Opera..." "I was staying at Moscow's Leningradskaya Hotel..." Yes, in each of these visits, something sweet and good happened. Oh, so very sweet.
Even readers who have seen "The Lives of Others," the film evoking the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic, cannot imagine the wholesale brutality of the Pyongyang gang.
It is arrogant vanity for Maazel to think his conducting the Dvorak "New World Symphony" and Gershwin's "American in Paris" will affect even the tiniest measure of the systematic and ongoing cruelty in North Korea. Furtwangler had more of an excuse to conduct in Hitler's Germany. At least, he could help some Jews flee.