The Kennedy Center

The Giving Tree for Orchestra, Cello Obligato and Narrator, Op. 15

About the Work

The Turn of the Screw Composer: Lorin Maazel
© Paul Horsley

Lorin Maazel has maintained parallel activities as both violinist and composer alongside his distinguished conducting career. As violinist, he made his solo debut at age 15 and later served as a member of the Pittsburgh Fine Arts Quartet and the Pittsburgh Symphony. He made his conducting debut in 1938, at the age of eight, and went on to lead one of the most productive careers on the podium of our time--serving as music director at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Vienna Staatsoper, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and, until last spring, the New York Philharmonic. Since 2004 he has also served as music director of the Arturo Toscanini Philharmonic and, from 2006, also of the Palau de les Arts in Valencia, Spain.

His conducting career has included several historic moments: In 1960 he became the first American to conduct at Bayreuth, and in 2008 he led the New York Philharmonic in a historic visit to North Korea. Recent guest engagements have included the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra. In 2000, Maazel founded a competition for conductors, and through his Châteauville Foundation he has created a festival and residency program for young artists. His honors include the Commander's Cross of Merit (Germany), the Legion of Honor (France), the Knight Grand Cross (Italy) and the Commander of the Lion (Finland). The United Nations named him Goodwill Ambassador.

During the 1990s, Maazel began to focus more steadily on composition, and in 2005 the New York Philharmonic devoted a program to his music. His catalogue includes concertos for cello (for Mstislav Rostropovich), flute (for Sir James Galway) and violin; Monaco Fanfares, Farewells and Irish Vapours and Capers for orchestra; The Giving Tree and The Empty Pot, narrated children's stories with orchestra; and a symphonic synthesis of Wagner's Ring cycle The Ring Without Words. His first opera, 1984, based on George Orwell's novel, had its premiere in 2005 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and was broadcast on BBC radio and television.

The Giving Tree was composed in 1998 to a text by Shel Silverstein, whose illustrated 1964 book of the same title has become one of the most popular (and at times controversial) children's books of our time. It received its premiere in April of that year in the television broadcast in Munich, with the composer's wife, Dietlinde Turban, as narrator and Han-Na Chang as cello soloist. The Giving Tree is "a very tender story of man's indifference to man," Maazel told The New York Times in 2005. "Some people are just incapable of empathy — this is, after all, the story of the tree who gave and gave, and the man who took and took. And this is so typical of the world we live in, the users and used." The work is "not necessarily for young people," Maazel wrote in a program note, "but … an effort to widen the repertoire of narrated music so that it's not always Peter and the Wolf, the story line of which is pretty dreadful, though the music is masterful."

The obbligato solo cello in The Giving Tree represents the boy throughout, skipping and scurrying cheerfully at the outset and growing darker and more melancholy as the piece progresses. (The tree is discussed with the female pronoun, which is partly what has sparked controversy.) Maazel's skillful sure compositional hand evokes wind-rustled leaves (twittering woodwinds), the tree's loneliness (a dark, slow theme for horn) and sadness (a big, tragic string theme). When the boy-man grows old, the cello part grows ponderous and pensive. The interplay of dissonance and concord in the final measures conveys the story's ambiguous and conflicted conclusion.