Maestro Masur Stretches From Leipzig to New York
The future music director of the New York Philharmonic - who takes over this fall - brings with him the rich musical traditions of Leipzig and his native Silesia
KANSAS CITY — 'IT happened very fast," says maestro Kurt Masur, referring to his appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic in the fall of 1991. "It means next year I will be music director for both the Gewandhaus in Leipzig and the Philharmonic in New York. But when you are my age, nothing makes you frightened!" This evening, after a program of Prokofiev, Strauss, and Hans Werner Henze in Kansas City's Music Hall, Mr. Masur and the musicians of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig are attending a post-concert reception. While conducting, Masur had presented an air of unapproachable authority; but that doesn't last after he trades his black tailcoat for an informal tan suit. He is tall and sturdy, his neatly trimmed beard almost snow white. "Soon we are going to the Ann Arbor Music Festival where the Gewandhaus i s
the resident orchestra. After that - well, then my wife and I must find a place to stay in New York." His eyes are bright and piercing. "I have a program of more than 40 concerts with the New York Philharmonic that must start this September. I will be busy."
Masur's position as one of the world's leading conductors keeps his life "up-tempo," as he would put it. Active since 1970 as the music director of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, he has also conducted many other orchestras (including the London Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic), taught at the Leipzig Academy of Music, made more than 100 recordings, and played a modest part in the recent political life of Leipzig.
For his New York programs he will present the same kind of blend - old and new, familiar and unfamiliar - that has distinguished his work with the Gewandhaus. Bruckner's 7th Symphony will rub sturdy shoulders with Copland's twangy "Old American Songs" and the contemporary motor rhythms of John Adams's "A Short Ride on a Fast Machine."
"I try always for this kind of balance," he explains. "First, you must keep in mind that the programs have to be attractive enough that people here will come to the concert. So, at first you do what you know they love. But also, you have to do what you can to bring them things they don't know and maybe don't like already. This is a practice Mendelssohn started when he conducted the Gewandhaus more than 150 years ago. He knew he needed well-educated audiences and he started educational concerts to make n e
w music familiar."
From his travels, Masur has found that American and European audiences have different musical tastes. "I have gone around in America very often and I think I know many cities as well as most Americans do!" he replies. "For instance, I know that New York audiences don't like so much oratorios and choral pieces. This is astonishing. It is strange because you have so many choirs here and singing is a very natural part. You have a duty to convince the audience that those pieces are very, very attractive. Af t
er Lennie [Bernstein] died, I took over the Mendelssohn 'Elijah' from him, and at least the audience liked it."
Inevitably, Masur will bring to his new post the rich traditions of his homeland. A native of Brieg, in Silesia, he remembers hearing Bach's "The Art of the Fugue" on the church's baroque organ when he was only 12. Later he studied music at the conservatories of Breslau and Leipzig. In 1953 in his middle 20s, he began conducting at the Leipzig Opera House. Music was everywhere, he recalls - reminders of the great composers and conductors were in every street, every house, every church. "I was educated t o
respect the tradition of the past. I had some teachers who were in the Gewandhaus Orchestra. So when in later years I stood in front of the Gewandhaus myself, I felt this great spirit of the great conductors in former times."
The Gewandhaus is one of the oldest professional orchestras in the world. It was founded by 16 wealthy citizens of Leipzig in 1743. "It was to be an orchestra for the city," Masur explains, "for the ordinary citizens for a lot of different occasions." He says, "If you want to know what the old Gewandhaus was like, look at your own Boston Symphony Hall, which is a copy." Under the guidance of Felix Mendelssohn, who served as music director in 1835-47, and his successors - including luminaries like Otto N i
kisch, Bruno Walter, and Wilhelm Furtwangler - Leipzig audiences not only heard the Beethoven symphonies for the first time, but "rediscoveries" of exhumed masterworks by Bach and Schubert, and world premieres of "modern" works like Schumann's 1st and 4th symphonies, the Mendelssohn "Scotch" symphony, and the Brahms Violin Concerto. On his current tour, Masur is continuing that tradition by premiering a new work, Hans Werner Henze's "Seven Love Songs for Cello and Orchestra."
Now it is easier for travelers from the West to visit Leipzig and share in its musical treasures. "You can come and see the house of Clara and Robert Schumann. You can go into the Thomas Church to watch where Bach first performed his 'St. Matthew Passion' and many cantatas. You can go to the house where Mahler has composed his 1st Symphony. Or the house where Schiller wrote the 'Ode to Joy.' Brahms has lived there; and of course Max Reger, and Goethe as a student. Now the New Gewandhaus is placed opposi t
e the Opera House near the university - in the Augustus Platz [formerly Karl Marx Platz].... "
It was Masur's fierce devotion to Leipzig's artistic heritage, ironically, that led him into dangerous political waters in the months of October and November 1989. "In Leipzig and in Dresden, the Protestant churches had opened their doors to young people to discuss their problems. They could talk openly how they wanted to change the life in this country.... I got a letter [saying] some street musicians were taken into custody.... We found out that the political leaders feared that from these street musi c
ians might start a political movement. So I made a meeting in the Gewandhaus to offer the musicians my help. We invited all the street musicians, the Secret Police, and the City Council - just to tell everybody, please keep peace, don't have confrontations, no force."
"You invited the Secret Police?" Masur was asked.
He laughs. "Of course! They would come anyway, yes?"
A number of newspapers reported these incidents, alleging that Masur helped remove the threat of civil strife and bloodshed. Masur demurs. "I think it was a kind of dress rehearsal for the movement to come. We found out that the young soldiers, the young policemen also felt the same way. No force."
Reportedly, Masur was subsequently urged to accept the presidency of the country. He refused. "I was not a political leader," he explains, downplaying his role in these events. "I just came in at the point where it was starting to be dangerous for them. At that time there were only a few people who could be trusted. I was one of them because I was known as an artist and someone who had wanted only peace."
In addition to a heavy schedule of upcoming concerts, Masur's plans for the future include new recordings with both orchestras for the Philips and Teldec labels. And there is obvious relish in his voice as he anticipates a new Mahler symphony cycle. I ask him which orchestra will do Mahler. His eyes sparkle. Ideally, he says, the project will be international in scope and divide the performances among three orchestras - the three Mahler himself conducted - the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, the Berlin Philharmo n
ic, and the New York Philharmonic.
If he regrets anything about this daunting schedule, it's the toll it takes on his many hobbies. His voice quickens when he talks about one of his favorite subjects - gliders. "I flew gliders in the mountains of Silesia," he explains. "You learn to fly like a bird, to go with the wind and this is very beautiful."