Henry Mazer

essay on the conductor Henry Mazer (obituary)

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Friday, August 16, 2002

Never Boring

(essay on
Henry Mazer by Rolf-Peter Wille)

"There’s one thing about Taipei: It never gets boring." For example on 21 September 1999. Our apartment was messed up by the earthquake, we had to go out on the street and decided to visit our friend, Henry Mazer, at his penthouse on Hsin-Hai Road, right across Taiwan University’s back entrance. Mazer’s small one-bedroom domicile looked quite shaken, complete with dropped bookshelves, pictures, etc., but the maestro was comfortably slumbering in bed. He shortly woke up and mumbled: "There’s one thing about Taipei: It never gets boring." He wanted to celebrate the earthquake with a bottle of wine, but we were too depressed that night to accept this offer.

There’s one thing about Mazer: He never got boring. In fact I clearly remember my first close encounter with the famous conductor in the waiting lounge of Sung-Shan Airport. I had seen Mazer onstage and so I introduced myself.
"Are you flying down-south to make money?" asked Mazer with a mischievous grin. "Yes…" I replied sheepishly, feeling somewhat guilty of course.
"You see, how different we are…" came Mazer’s reply, "I’d pay money for not having to go there!"

Unlike architecture, which he admired, flattering was an art-form Mazer despised. Not only did he hate the epithet "Maestro"—he wanted to be called Henry in fact—but Henry was famous for the four-letter words he threw at the unfortunate orchestra member during rehearsals and even during performances. But such sudden outbreaks of theatrical wrath were always short-lived and quite tongue-in-cheek and after the incident Henry would easily become your buddy again, ready for jokes, good steak and wine.

Mazer, who could be amazingly generous and benevolent—he never failed to clearly voice his love for Taiwan—nevertheless still belonged to a now extinct type of non-political, straightforward American, who did not hesitate to speak his mind without consideration for positive thinking.
"What is your plan for the future?" asked a reporter at a recent press conference.
"To die" was Mazer’s answer and he didn’t hesitate for a second. Such kind of ruthless truthfulness is no longer popular among today’s younger generations and Mazer was lucky enough to have the experienced interpreters at his side who would never fail in cushioning the harsh impact of such verbal blows.

It is this crustiness of character that isolated and alienated some of the world’s greatest musicians—such as Beethoven or Brahms—from society. But Mazer’s was a somewhat cute crustiness, damped probably by his love for exotic Taiwan, and even though he was brave enough to survive alone in a foreign land without speaking the language, he somehow turned this situation into a higher stage from which to project authority and conduct society like an orchestra. Having lost his wife, his daughter and his original home base he had a steely strength in him to survive just any mishap. After a serious knee injury and operation which would have an ordinary person confined to a wheelchair forever, he nevertheless insisted on walking, walking up to his penthouse apartment every day, walking out on stage for every concert. During his last visit to our place he even insisted on crawling up the very dangerous staircase to our practice-room.

Mazer hated half-hearted gestures, half-witted comments, or fussiness during rehearsals. His mere presence in front of an orchestra managed to attract concentration and alertness from its members. Such authority, it seems, can only be projected by a character who is not involved in society, not polluted by its political ambitions. Even though Mazer’s unyielding stare gave him the nickname "cobra-eye," he never misused his authority in order to attract attention as a musical persona. His credo was to show more of the composer , but less of the conductor. Mazer: "I believe in making them play. I don’t like to force anything. They know what I want and I know what they can do."

Plenty of foreign musicians have settled in Taiwan over the years, but Henry Mazer is only the second one of historic stature after pianist/conductor
Robert Scholz, who stayed long enough to generate a lasting impact. His former position of assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra may not have been glamorous enough to throw Mazer into the glaring lime-light of international superstardom—in his Chicago Reader article on Mazer, Kyle Gann has called him "The Man in Solti’s Shadow"—but it gave him the opportunity to work with performers the likes of Artur Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin, Alexis Weissenberg, John Browning, Isaac Stern, Marian Anderson, Andres Segovia, to name a few. Not many people in Taiwan may be aware of the fact that Mazer even makes an appearance in Sir Yehudi Menuhin’s famous biography "Unfinished Journey." Here is the excerpt from page 327:

"In the late 1940s an American tour took me [Menuhin] to the small mining town of
Wheeling, set incongruously amid West Virginia's rural beauties. Lacking urban graces, Wheeling had, however, an orchestra, an orchestral society assembling local patrons, and an energetic, talented young conductor named Henry Mazer (later assistant in Chicago), who carried the brunt of the enterprise, functioning – it seemed to me – as janitor, ticket seller, money raiser and publicist as well as conductor. While driving me to my hotel after rehearsal, he asked me to a supper party to follow the evening concert, and overcame my commitment to going early to bed with the information that one of the orchestra's principal patrons was to give it.
'There's one thing I must warn you about,' he added.
'He doesn't like Beethoven.'
Upon inquiry, I learned that our host's annual donation was two hundred dollars, in Mazer's view a sum worth the expenditure of some tact; I promised to keep a check upon my feeling for the Master. After a programme on which of course Beethoven did not figure, my contribution to it being Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, Mazer and I were delivered at the elevator's last gasp to a penthouse apartment where, as we entered, I received a blow between the shoulders and, recovering my balance, heard a hearty, beefy gentleman demand,
'Well, Mr. Menuhin, and what do you think of Beethoven?'
'Many people, I ventured cautiously, 'seem to like him.'

'Ach!' snorted our host. 'No guts!'
Between Beethoven and myself I felt I knew which at that moment better deserved the rebuke, but a promise is a promise."

Mazer has made important contributions as an educator as well, even before coming to Taiwan. A short search on the Internet will give a list of well known music directors in important positions in America, Israel and other places. In Taiwan his main achievement was his nurturing of the
Taipei Sinfonietta and Philharmonic Orchestra, founded by him in 1985. With some of the island’s most talented musicians among its members, the group has toured USA, Canada and Europe and became the first Taiwanese group to perform at the Musikvereinssaal in Vienna, the Boston Symphony Music Hall, and other important venues. The orchestra’s performances got rave reviews and the Boston Globe commented on the musicians playing with rare commitment. Yet I strongly believe that Mazer’s influence on individual musicians here is of equal importance, musicians such as the conductors Lin Tien-Chi, John Van Deursen, instrumentalists Liu Hwei-Jin, Su Hsien-Ta, Lin Hui-Junand many others who would always greatly benefit from his enthusiastic support.

Henry Mazer has often said that he spent the best time of his life in Taiwan. Maybe it was also the most meaningful and creative time and I am sure that his enthusiasm and generosity will live on in the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s musicians.

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