Fuse Remembrance: Kurt Masur (1927-2015)

Kurt Masur leaves behind a complex legacy, one that’s not neatly (or easily) summed up by the caricature of a stern, conservative, Old World German maestro.

The late Kurt Masur --

The late Kurt Masur — he believed in music as “an expression of humanism.”

By Jonathan Blumhofer

“It is my opinion that the principle task of a conductor is not to put himself in evidence but to disappear behind his functions as much as possible. We are pilots, not servants…

Franz Liszt offered that philosophy in 1853. If any recent orchestral leader defined the sentiment in and for recent times it was surely Kurt Masur, who died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on December 19th. He was eighty-eight.

On these shores, Masur is rightly known for his transformative tenure at the helm of the New York Philharmonic (NYPO), where he was music director from 1991-2002 and conductor emeritus ever since. The orchestra he inherited a quarter-century ago from Zubin Mehta surely was not in as terrible shape as some press reports and obituaries have since made it out to have been: there are (among other things) a series of triumphant NYPO recordings from the ‘80s that argue decisively to the contrary. But Masur did improve the players’ morale and he instilled in the ensemble a level of discipline that had at least been inconsistently enforced for some time; that the Philharmonic is today (and has been for the last fifteen or so years) the most technically assured and brilliant-sounding American orchestra is a direct result of his leadership. And, though his eleven years in New York were often tempestuous (his well-publicized feud with the Philharmonic’s then-president, Deborah Borda, ended with what Masur characterized as his being forced out of the orchestra’s directorship), in hindsight they’ve been increasingly viewed as a kind of golden age, comparable to Leonard Bernstein’s (also eleven-year) term at the Philharmonic’s helm.

But the Philharmonic wasn’t Masur’s only major post. Of perhaps even more significance in the orchestral world was his long relationship with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, of which he served as Kapellmeister from 1970 to 1996. For a man steeped in tradition (as his deep love for the standard canon attested), Masur and Leipzig were a perfect fit. There, following in the footsteps of Mendelssohn, Carl Reinecke, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Bruno Walter (to name a few), Masur achieved a conspicuous level of international renown for a conductor working behind the Iron Curtain. And, while there are some fine recordings that he and the Gewandhausorchester made during that period – of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Bruckner, among others – the most remarkable contribution he made to life in Leipzig during that stormy quarter-century was political rather than musical: Masur, along with three Communist party officials, and a handful of leading local personalities, brokered talks at the Gewandhaus that headed off what many at the time (and more since) thought would become a bloody battle between protesters and the authorities as the East German state crumbled in the fall of 1990. For a time afterwards, there were serious discussions that Masur might be a candidate for president of a unified Germany.

A life in politics wasn’t for Masur, though. He was a musician, through and through, and, as his long life has been memorialized in the days since his death, perhaps the most striking theme that has been repeated concerns Masur’s conviction that the imperative to make music is, at its root, no less than a moral one. He believed in music as “an expression of humanism,” to quote the NYPO’s current president, Matthew VanBesien, and, while that contention may have at times been mocked or seemed trite, there were moments – in Leipzig in 1990, in New York in the wake of 9/11 – when it was fully called for and resulted in music-making of uncommon power.

And, while that creed helps explain Masur’s reverence for the standard repertoire, it also illuminates one of his best, underrated qualities as a conductor: a strong interest in new and neglected repertoire. For all the Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Bruckner concerts he directed (and there were quite a few), he also led revealing, perceptive accounts of music by Arthur Honegger, Stravinsky, Debussy, Dutilleux, Bernstein, and Dvorak. During his tenure at the Philharmonic, Masur conducted a number of major premieres, including important pieces by Tan Dun, Thomas Adès, Sofia Gubaidulina, Kaija Saariaho, Hans Werner Henze, and Wynton Marsalis. Clearly, he leaves behind a complex legacy, one that’s not neatly (or easily) summed up by the caricature of a stern, conservative, Old World German maestro.

Two concerts I heard Masur lead, both of which happened to fall at important junctures in my life, stand tall in my memory. The first was actually the first orchestral concert I ever attended, an all-Tchaikovsky program at Avery Fisher Hall in January 1996. Undoubtedly, for most of the crowd that evening the highlight was the evergreen Fifth Symphony, which I recall being played with gusto and color. But, for me, the best part were the two rarities on the first half (both of which I haven’t encountered in a concert hall since): the incomplete Piano Concerto no. 3 and the wonderful Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra. If you’ve traced an enthusiasm for offbeat repertoire in my writing for the Arts Fuse, its roots go back to this concert.

Fifteen years later, in my second review for the Fuse, I heard what turned out to be Masur’s final concert at Symphony Hall with the BSO. Though that was more than four years ago, I’m still in awe of the towering, organic reading he led that night of Brahms’ Third Symphony. There’s nothing quite like experiencing something you think you know inside out in a completely fresh way; it’s the sort of thing that, if you attend enough concerts, you want to have happen far more often than it ever does. Masur pulled it off in what has long been my favorite Brahms symphony. It was unforgettable.

Not surprisingly, for a musician as widely travelled and respected as Masur, his reach as conductor and teacher was very wide and two strands tie him, in a special way, to Boston. The first is through his son, Ken-David, a fine conductor in his own right, who is currently serving as one of the BSO’s assistant conductors. The other comes via the BSO’s music director, Andris Nelsons, who, in 2017, will take up Masur’s old post as Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. When that appointment was announced this summer, one of the highlights promised a “special relationship” between the orchestras of both cities. However that transpires, it at least ensures some local continuation of the Masur legacy, one that, in its demanding focus and uncompromising musical principles, ought to be both widely celebrated and enthusiastically imitated.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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