I was saddened to learn last week that Kurt Masur had passed, though at a fine old age of 88, on December 19th. Fromthe New York Times:
Kurt Masur, the music director emeritus of the New York Philharmonic, who was credited with transforming the orchestra from a sullen, lackluster ensemble into one of luminous renown, died on Saturday in Greenwich, Conn. He was 88.
The death, from complications of Parkinson’s disease, was announced by the Philharmonic, which said it would dedicate its Saturday night performance of Handel’s “Messiah” to Mr. Masur’s memory.
Mr. Masur (pronounced mah-ZOOR) was the Philharmonic’s music director from 1991 to 2002. When he took its helm, the orchestra was roundly considered to be a world-class ensemble in name only, its playing grown slipshod, its players fractious and discontented, its recording contracts unrenewed.
Until I became a father—actually the year prior when I anticipated a child—I would attend about three or four concerts at the New York Philharmonic every year, and for a number of those years Kurt Masur was the music director and conductor. I got to see him conduct often. I had not known he had been so significant in bringing back the NY Philharmonic back to world class status. From what I remember Masur had not been thought highly, and he was not the first choice. The Times obituary confirms that.
The selection of Mr. Masur to lead the Philharmonic astounded nearly everyone in classical music circles. A specialist in the music of Central European composers — notably Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Bruckner — he had built a respectable if not scintillating career amid the musical and political repressions of East Germany.
The longtime Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mr. Masur was known as a faithful — some would say stolid — interpreter who seemed to have neither immense musical charisma nor intense interest in works outside the canonical repertory. (Kapellmeister, literally meaning “master of the chapel,” designates a post that in German-speaking countries is roughly equivalent to that of music director. But among musicians elsewhere, the term can be used derisively.)
Apparently before Masur, the orchestra had fallen in prestige. We New Yorkers tend to think we’re the world class at everything. Whoever ran the Orchestra back in 1991 could not hire some of the leading conductors. Though Masur had been a fallback selection, he transformed the orchestra back to its leading status.
Enter Mr. Masur, the darkest of dark horses. A shambolic, bearded giant who stood 6-foot-3 and favored bolo ties offstage, he may have lacked the dynamism of Bernstein and the avant-gardism of Mr. Boulez. But what he could bring to the Philharmonic, the search committee believed, were attributes that were even more urgently needed: the respect of its players, before whom he had appeared as a guest conductor; a deep knowledge of the Germanic repertory that is the foundation stone of the Western symphonic canon; and a tasteful, unswerving fealty to the intent of composers.
He could also bring a meticulous if somewhat dictatorial approach to rehearsal discipline, something that New York’s unruly orchestra was widely thought to need.
“I remember when I asked one of the orchestra committee after my appointment here, ‘Why me?’ ” Mr. Masur, who spoke fluent if somewhat impeachable English, told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday in 1999. “He said, ‘Because you do not fear orchestras.’ ”
I had not known any of that. But Masur was its prime conductor for some twelve years, which is significant amount of time as conductors go. I enjoyed his work and selection, though, to be honest, I don’t have a fine enough musical ear to distinguish one conductor from another. My classical musical ear had been built on recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies conducted by the great Leonard Bernstein, and when I sat at a Beethoven symphony conducted by Masur, it sounded similar enough.
Here’s a little interview clip of Masur on music.
And here is Masur in action on the wonderful fourth movement of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. You can see many of Masur’s mannerisms as he conducts. I guess each conductor has his own particular mannerisms. The camera, since it can look from various angles, especially facing him, can pick up more than someone sitting in the audience. At around the 6:34 mark with the camera facing the conductor and with a wide camera shot showing the whole audience, you can see the three levels of the upper seating. I usually sat in that top level when I attended, the cheapest seats in the house. ;)
What a magnificent symphony. That opening theme from the final movement is so memorable.