Lorin Maazel

Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a concert of Schubert and Mahler at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa in March. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / March 3, 2014)

Lorin Maazel, who died Sunday at 84, was a maestro of the old school -- formidable, intimidating, sometimes autocratic. He was an eminence grise before he went gray and an intellectual who brought a kind of cosmopolitan erudition to the world of music. 

There was no joking around the podium for him: Maazel brought a seriousness to the concert hall that could be compared to a priest performing high Mass. He usually conducted without a score, relying on what many have said was a photographic memory. He was a conductor who usually got his way, which meant that he sometimes clashed with the institutions he led.

Maazel's tenure at the Vienna State Opera, beginning in 1982, was a rocky one. The maestro made significant changes to the way the opera was run, leading to a disagreement with cultural officials in the Austrian capital. Maazel resigned after just two years into his term.

In the United States, Maazel was most famous for leading the Cleveland Orchestra from 1972 to 1982. But he reportedly never warmed to the musicians, who considered him unqualified for the job. Despite conducting a number of noteworthy performances and creating lauded albums, Maazel told the New York Times in 2002 that his relationship with the orchestra's musicians was "rocky" to the end.

He led New York Philharmonic for seven years, ending his tenure in 2009. His time with the orchestra was more harmonious, though some critics found fault in his choice in repertoire. At a time when many major orchestras were already embracing new music, Maazel was a staunch conservative who preferred the old masters. 

He also had a long association with the city of Pittsburgh, having studied as a boy with the Russian conductor Vladimir Bakaleinikoff and later leading the Pittsburgh Symphony.

The French-born Maazel immigrated at a young age to Los Angeles, where his family encouraged his music career. As a child prodigy, he made an early impression on the media.

A Los Angeles Times article from 1939 briefly recounted a concert that the young conductor led in New York: "Lorin Maazel, a 9-year-old Los Angeles schoolboy, conducted 'The Marche Slav' by Tschaikowsky, at a concert given by the national music camp orchestra in the Court of Peace at the World's Fair tonight. Five thousand persons attended the concert. The boy conductor, who directed the playing of the march from memory, using no score, received a tremendous ovation."

Later the same year, Maazel led a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. A Times review recalled: "The chubby little conductor Maazel came on the stage with a swing and determined vigor that gave evidence of his firm intention.... Lorin merits all that can be given him in order that he may realize potential leadership."

He continued to conduct into his later years. In March, he came to Costa Mesa with the Vienna Philharmonic, performing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. He was also a semifrequent presence at Walt Disney Concert Hall, having guest conducted there a number of times in the last decade.

Read the full obituary on Lorin Maazel.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT