The first impression one gets upon meeting Kurt Masur is how much he looks like a maestro.
The music director of the New York Philharmonic is a massive man, 6 feet, 3 inches tall, and possesses the kind of commanding presence that no doubt demands the strict attention of most musicians.
And yet, he also has a warmth and an obvious passion that explain why he has been embraced by both the orchestra and the music lovers of New York since he took over in 1991.
A landmark birthday for Mr. Masur has not gone unnoticed by the Philharmonic, which is about to put on the second of two celebrations for the occasion. Next Wednesday from 8 to 10 p.m. (check local listings), PBS will present, as part of its "Live From Lincoln Center" presentations, the "New York Philharmonic Opening Night Gala," in which Masur will conduct pieces by Prokofiev, Mozart, Brahms, and Strauss. Noted soprano Renee Fleming will serve as guest soloist, and the evening will be hosted by Hugh Downs.
During a recent conversation, Masur notes that such hoopla was not his idea. "For me such a station is nothing special," he affirms. "The important thing is to try to be wiser than you were 50 years ago and have the energy...."
Energy is something that is not in short supply for Masur, which he credits to conducting. "You're always in front of hundreds of people who are waiting for you, to see what you're going to do," he explains. "It's kind of a daily training."
Few conductors have had the kind of high profile that Masur has enjoyed throughout his long career. For 26 years, he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a post held in earlier times by the likes of Mendelssohn, Furtwngler, and Walter.
For a brief period, he was even seriously considered as a candidate for the presidency of East Germany. He also played an important role in the demonstrations that led to German reunification in 1989.
When Masur, who had served as guest conductor many times, was approached by the New York Philharmonic to succeed Zubin Mehta, he had few hesitations to fill a post that has been held by Mahler, Toscanini, Stokowski, and Bernstein.
Masur had several goals in mind when he took over. For one, he was determined to boost the prominence of the Philharmonic.
He was also concerned about the level of musical education for students, and has been instrumental in creating a series of programs designed to increase musical awareness.
These include special concerts, forums, and seminars designed to reach young audiences, as well as new programs in musical education for students ranging from elementary school to college.
For several years after he came to New York, Masur stayed on at the Gewandhaus as well. He only retired from that position last year, a decision that he says came at the right time.
"They needed someone who is fresh, who can start with new ideas," he says. "But it's not a farewell. I'm a guest conductor there now, and I go back all the time."
Masur is constantly striving to reach new audiences, a process that he is careful to describe as "collaborative." And he is also mindful of satisfying the orchestra's core audience. "You can never fulfill everybody's wishes," he says.
"This is a problem," he continues. "But at least what we can achieve is a balance between what we need as a main repertory and the need to make the audience confront contemporary music, and for them to feel that we are interested in playing American compositions. This is a crucial point."
It is, as he well knows, a delicate process. "What we try to do is help the audience open up to learning about new pieces or unknown composers, present or past. This is a process that takes a while."
At this point in his life, the maestro says that he has "no frustrations" and considers himself "a happy man." When asked about what he wants his legacy to be, he sighs deeply, as if he cannot allow himself to consider the question.
Finally, he says, "I hope that we will have more people who need the orchestra, who feel that to enjoy and experience the arts in that way enriches their lives."