Kurt Masur, conductor
Conductor Kurt Masur Dies At 88.
Six magnums of Chateau Petrus 1989 from Pomerol sold for 30,550 pounds ($45,500) at a Sotheby’s wine auction in London this week, switching the focus back to Bordeaux after a New York sale earlier this month featuring rare Italian, Burgundy and Rhone bottles. He used it to tame orchestras — notably the unruly New York Philharmonic, which he led for 11 years — and to historic effect in his native land, East Germany, where his call for calm helped prevent violence during tense 1989 pro-democracy protests.
Kurt Masur could also bring a meticulous if somewhat dictatorial approach to rehearsal discipline, something that New York’s unruly orchestra was widely thought to need. A three-bottle lot of Saint Emilion producer Cheval Blanc’s 1947 vintage sold for 17,625 pounds while seven bottles of Chateau Latour 1961 fetched 16,450 pounds. As tensions rose Oct. 9 — and with the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in China still fresh on people’s minds — Masur and five others — a satirist, a cleric and three party officials — issued a public statement calling for calm and promising dialogue.
But he held a position of rare international renown there – as the director of Leipzig’s storied Gewandhaus Orchestra, where his predecessors included Felix Mendelssohn. “I was busy with music for too long,” Masur recalled in an interview last year with the German weekly Der Spiegel. “But when I learned that all of a sudden street musicians were being arrested for wanting to protest peacefully, I realized that change was overdue.” By 1989, Leipzig had become the focal point for the demonstrations that would culminate in the opening of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communist rule. With security forces amassing in the streets and young people saying goodbye to their families as if heading to war, a recording — read by Masur — was broadcast on speakers throughout the city.
The Liv-ex Fine Wine 50 Index, tracking the most recent physically available vintages from five top Bordeaux growers, has fallen 33 percent in the past five years, though the market has leveled off as demand revived at lower prices. Without it, he later said “blood would have flowed.” A month later, the embattled East German authorities gave in to popular pressure and opened the country’s border with the West. When he took its helm, the orchestra was considered to be a world-class ensemble in name only, its playing grown slipshod, its players fractious and discontented, its recording contracts unrenewed. His immediate predecessors — Pierre Boulez, with his cool, cerebral approach and focus on contemporary works, and Zubin Mehta, seen as purveying flash and dazzle at the expense of deep musical meaning — were held more than partly responsible for the artistic decline that had followed the epochal reign of Leonard Bernstein, the Philharmonic’s music director from 1958 to 1969. Germany’s minister of culture, Monika Gruetters, paid tribute Saturday to Masur’s musical legacy and his role in the peaceful revolution “when he used his high authority to compel the power of the state to react without violence to the mass demonstrations in Leipzig and begin a dialogue with the citizens.” After German reunification, Masur took charge of the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France, among a slew of engagements that spanned three continents, but spurned the political role that some suggested for him.
The ensemble, once considered one of the premiere American orchestras, had devolved into a lackluster group: critically skewered, internally contentious and lacking clear artistic vision. Born on July 18, 1927, in what was then the German town of Brieg – now Brzeg, Poland – Masur studied piano, composition and conducting at the Music College of Leipzig. As former New York Times critic Edward Rothstein put in 1992, after the conclusion of Masur’s first season in New York, the Philharmonic had formerly been “a mess.” Rothstein wrote: “Before Mr.
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. 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.
Masur “managed to get everybody to focus on the product of what we are doing,” concertmaster Glenn Dicterow said before the conductor’s departure in 2002. The orchestra’s status had so fallen that the director’s post was rejected by major maestros.” But Masur’s appointment was a clear signal that it was time for the orchestra to begin anew. Masur, who had been the longtime Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was best known for working with solidly German and Austrian repertoire, such as Beethoven and Bruckner symphonies. But what he could bring to the Philharmonic, the search committee came to believe, were attributes that at the time 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 repertoire that is the foundation stone of the Western symphonic canon; and a tasteful, unswerving fealty to the intent of composers. He is survived by his third wife, Tomoko, a soprano from Japan; and five children, including Ken-David Masur, the San Diego Symphony’s associate conductor.
After early work at the Halle County Theater and the Erfurt and Leipzig opera theaters, he became the conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic in 1955 and conducted several East German opera companies and orchestras. During his time in Leipzig — the city that had once been home to such composers as Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Wagner — Masur persuaded East Germany’s chancellor, Erich Honecker, to rebuild the orchestra’s concert hall, which had been destroyed during World War II. And despite the political challenges of the era, he was allowed to take his orchestra on international tours, including to the U.S.; he made his U.S. debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1974, the same year he took his Gewandhaus players to Carnegie Hall for the first time. As the Soviet Union began to crumble and the ground under East Germany’s political leadership started to shake as well, Masur — who had never been a member of the Communist party — took a stunningly public role.
Masur would take over four December performances of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” which Bernstein, in failing health, had been scheduled to lead. (Bernstein died on Oct. 14.) Writing in The Times, John Rockwell reviewed Mr. Masur, he wrote, “propelled the music forward with bracing authority.” He added: “At the end, the hall rang with cheers that apparently signify the onset of Mr. His time at the Philharmonic started even before expected; when Leonard Bernstein suddenly died in 1990, Masur stepped in to conduct Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah.
Masur for conventional programming, during his tenure he commissioned dozens of new works, from the likes of Hans Werner Henze, John Corigliano, Thomas Ads, Sofia Gubaidulina and Christopher Rouse. On Dec. 31, 1989, he led the Gewandhaus Orchestra in a triumphant performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, broadcast on television across throughout East and West Germany as a symbol of national unity. “I am a politician against my will,” Mr. And during Masur’s tenure, the orchestra commissioned more than 40 new works, including music by Tan Dun, Ned Rorem, Sofia Gubaidulina, Thomas Ades, Kaija Saariaho and Giya Kancheli. But by the time he was 16, an inoperable tendon injury in his right hand had made performing impossible, and he chose to concentrate on conducting. (As a result of the hand condition, Mr.
Masur conducted without a baton throughout his career.) After the war, in which he served in the Wehrmacht, he studied conducting and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. He worked as a conductor at various opera houses and East German orchestras before going to Berlin in 1960 as music director of the Komische Oper (Comic Opera), where he developed a deep sense of the dramatic possibilities of music. Masur’s immersion had begun a few months before, when he was asked to lend his support to the city’s street musicians, who were routinely arrested for not holding official, government-issued licenses.
He was furious about the decision, saying his prickly dealings with the Philharmonic reminded him of his earlier experiences with the East German secret police. Sure, the orchestra expected someone to give them some pushes in certain directions, but I convinced them, that is all.” He added: “Who fears me, doesn’t know me.” What was widely agreed is that the Philharmonic’s sound changed for the better almost instantly. But even this level of commitment did not spare him an escalating, highly public series of altercations with the orchestra’s board, and with its executive director, Deborah Borda. By all accounts, his clashes with Borda centered less on substantive issues than they did on a power struggle between two strong-willed personalities.
In 1972, he was at the wheel when his car struck another on an East German highway; his second wife, Irmgard, and the two occupants of the other car were all killed.
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