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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Obituary: Kurt Masur 1927-2015

The German conductor led the New York Philharmonic for 11 years.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kurt Masur at the helm of the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 The New York Philharmonic.
Kurt Masur, who led the New York Philharmonic as music director from 1991 to 2002 died earlier today in Greenwich CT. The cause of death was reported in the New York Times as "complications from Parkinson's disease."  The maestro was 88. Performances in later life were affected by a notable tremor in his hands. His passing follows a hospitalization after he fell off a podium while conducting the Orchestre National de France.

Mr. Masur enjoyed four decades as an internationally renowned conductor, leading in America, England, France, Germany and elswhere.  His 11 seasons at the helm of the New York Philharmonic were a critical period in the development of the orchestra, bringing a renewed focus on the music of Bach and Mendelssohn and the world premieres of many new works. Following the end of his tenure, he became music director emeritus, a position created for him. In his career he conducted the Lincoln Center-based orchestra 909 times.

His conducting style was unique, eschewing the use of a baton for an approach that used hands, eyes shoulders and body gestures to cue the musicians. What was remarkable was his ability to draw a powerful sound from the orchestra with seemingly little effort. His Beethoven, Bach and Brahms were all without peer. Even as the tremors from his Parkinson's became more and more evident in later life, he still had the power to bring the best out of an ensemble, as this 2012 Superconductor review shows.

A familiar figure in New York, Mr. Masur made his reputation conducting in the former East Germany. For many years he led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra as its kapellmeister, a post that has been held by musical luminaries of that city including Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn. He spent his Leipzig years recording complete cycles of Liszt, Beethoven and Bruch for the Philips labels and being one of the most eminent conductors under that Communist regime. In 1989, he made headlines when he joined a public plea that pacified a mass demonstration against the East German government.

Instead of violent revolution, his actions that day encouraged peaceful revolution, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year. In 2001 when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, Mr. Masur provided comfort to New Yorkers in the form of a performance of Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem.

I first met Kurt Masur in Lincoln Center Plaza, on the steps that lead up from the stage door of Avery Fisher Hall. Suddenly there he was, bird-like eyes piercing under that high forehead, glinting with life and intelligence. "Maestro Masur!" I blurted, feeling like a dumb kid (which I was.) "Yes?" he said. I introduced myself. He gave me a curious handshake, two fingers extended, and said "Very nice to meet you. Well, bye-bye," and we went about our ways.

I had the privilege to interview Mr. Masur in 1998.  I was working for and had the free reign to write profiles on various figures in the classical music and opera business. The phone rang. "This is Kurt Masur" came that familiar voice. And we talked for half an hour, on upcoming Philharmonic projects, him politely answering questions about conducting, satisfying the curiosity of a young writer still figuring things out.

At one point in the interview I asked him: "So, what do you do when you are not conducting, rehearsing, reading a score or studying music? What do you do to relax?"

He answered: "It is very silly but sometimes I like to work with appliances to take small electronics apart and put them back together."

And there you have it.

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