Born July 18, 1927, in Brieg, Silesia (later Poland); married Tomoko Sakurai (a Japanese soprano; third wife); children: four. Education: Studied piano and cello studies at National Music School, Breslau (now Wroclaw), Poland, 1942-44; attended Hochschule fur Musik, Leipzig, East Germany (now Germany), 1946-48. Addresses: Office-- New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023-6973.

There is always a tingle of anticipation when a conductor lifts his arms to signal the start of a concert. That tingle ran particularly high on September 11, 1991, when the raised arms belonged to maestro Kurt Masur, music director of the world-renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, who was making his debut as music director of the equally renowned New York Philharmonic. Masur, who holds these appointments concurrently, is unfazed by the challenge of helming a 107-strong ensemble of notoriously independent musicians in America while also leading a 250-year-old European orchestra that is ruled by tradition; he meets the challenge by simply preserving the unique character and sound of each, at the same time overlaying them with his own meticulous interpretation of the featured composer's work.

This is a difficult balance, but it is by no means the highest hurdle Masur has faced; a far more daunting test came in 1989, when the communist regime of East Germany began to teeter. Realizing that clashes between angry pro-democracy demonstrators and police seemed inevitable, Masur used his influence to persuade Communist Party officials and their opponents to convene at the Gewandhaus for talks. As a result, there was no bloodshed in Leipzig when the Berlin Wall crumbled weeks later. In fact, when the dust settled, many Leipzigers viewed Masur as a good choice for the country's first post-communist president. Ultimately, this would not be the case, as Masur dismissed such a possibility before the issue was decided. "I am a musician, not a politician," he told Time magazine's Michael Walsh in 1990. "I make my statements in music."

Masur was just seven years old when he learned to use music as a means of self-expression. Spurred on by his parents, he taught himself to play the piano and before long was devouring all types of music so eagerly that he abandoned tentative plans to work as an electrician and aimed instead for a career in music. Breslau's National Music School in what is now Wroclaw, Poland, was the first step to achieving this goal. A well-focused young Masur entered in 1942, proving himself a diligent piano and cello student. Piano studies continued at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1946, along with conducting and composition. Once he had graduated, Masur began the long, arduous climb up the ladder toward the recognition that would permit him to put his interpretive signature on any performance. In 1948, he began as a rehearsal coach at the Halle National Theater in Saxony, progressing, in 1951, to a two-year stint as conductor of the Erfurt City Theater. Next came a term as conductor of the Leipzig Opera, beginning in 1953, while he was guest conducting with the Dresden Radio Orchestra. In 1955 came his first major orchestral appointment, as conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, which he left in 1958 to become general director of opera at the Mecklenburg State Theater in Schwerin.

By 1960, Masur was an accomplished conductor with an extensive repertoire. As such, he was hand-picked for the post of music director at the prestigious Berlin Komische Oper by Walter Felsenstein, the company's opera director. Working with Felsenstein taught Masur a great deal about shaping his own interpretations. An innovative thinker, Felsenstein was an originator of the "realistic" music theater concept, the principal technique of which involved using music as a way to heighten opera's drama to its fullest extent. Because Felsenstein often re-edited original texts, reconstructing them to make the most of their dramatic potential, Masur learned to analyze and re-analyze every piece of music in order to bring out its deepest meaning. This skill enabled him to move past the technical demands of the composer's work, to the artistic spirit behind it.

Masur enjoyed his work with Felsenstein and was glad to have had the opportunity to add so many works to his repertoire during this time. Nevertheless, by 1964 he had spent 12 years in opera, and he was beginning to long for the variety he could derive only from orchestral work. Guest conducting seemed an ideal next step. Despite the fact that the East German government respected their musicians enough to support 88 orchestras, Masur knew he would have trouble getting a visa when he received an invitation to conduct in Venice, Italy. He defiantly accepted the 1966 engagement anyway, then went to the Ministry of Culture to demand the necessary travel permit. While at first adamant in its refusal, the ministry grudgingly backed down, fearing international repercussions if anything should stop the determined Masur from keeping his Venice appointment.

By 1970, when he took the reins of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Masur's guest engagements had made his musical statements familiar to music lovers all over Europe. Experienced, well versed in the Romantic masters whose works formed the backbone of the Leipzig repertoire, he also understood that Leipzig's was an orchestra that had always relied on tradition. It had been founded in 1743, during the lifetime of Johann Sebastian Bach, and had boasted quasi-professional musicians until 1835, when Felix Mendelssohn marched briskly onto the podium and turned his orchestra into the best in Europe. Then, to assure himself a future supply of reliably expert performers, Mendelssohn founded the Hochschule fur Musik (music school), using members of the orchestra as teachers. This tradition continues to rule the ensemble; fully 85 percent of conservatory students go on to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Masur himself heartily approves of the practice; "[we] don't like to take outsiders, especially strings," he told John Rockwell of the New York Times Magazine, "we have our own style."

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra style, which is lyrical and deeply textured, also owes much to conductor Bruno Walter, who passed on to the members techniques he had learned in Hamburg from the brilliant, difficult Gustav Mahler. Walter turned his orchestra into a national treasure soon after he became its music director in 1928; nonetheless, in 1933 he earned the dubious honor of being the first Jewish musician ejected from Germany by the Nazis. Masur was well acquainted with Walter's work. He especially admired his interpretations of Mozart, which he had first heard on a radio broadcast from West Berlin in 1946. Masur had then proceeded to learn everything he could about Walter's interpretations, which have become a guiding force to him.

In a few years Masur had smoothly incorporated the traditions of both Mendelssohn and Walter into an ensemble that bore his own unmistakable style. By 1974 he was ready to take the orchestra overseas; the tour included performances in Japan, China, Great Britain, and the United States. Masur also traveled frequently on his own, creating such a sensation with the Cleveland Orchestra that it was still remembered when he returned there in the summer of 1982.

Soon after Masur's arrival in Leipzig, the East German government announced plans for a new Gewandhaus to replace the building that had been flattened by bombs during World War II. While leading the orchestra's usual performances in the Congress Hall down the street, Masur himself supervised every detail of the new building's construction, making sure that the acoustics would be perfect for both recording and live performances. Because of the increasingly exacting acoustical detail afforded by newly sophisticated recording media, he knew that live and at-home audience expectations would be extremely high, and he was determined not to disappoint. Concertgoers at the orchestra's first Gewandhaus performance, in 1981, marveled at the sound quality and viewing vantage points of its modern amphitheater design, which places most seating in an elevated circle surrounding the orchestra.

By the 1980s Masur's prestige in the government was considerable. He accepted his status without false modesty, enjoying the recognition of fellow Leipzigers without taking advantage of his elevated position. But in 1989 he was thrust unexpectedly into the political glare cast on the tottering communist regime of East German head of state Erich Honecker. The catalyst was a letter he received during the summer asking for his help in protecting the rights of street musicians. Intrigued by the unusual request, Masur invited the city's street musicians to the Gewandhaus for a meeting with police and Communist Party authorities. The gathering ended so amicably that he repeated the event later in the year when angry pro-democracy demonstrators seething through Leipzig made him fear the possibility of widespread violence. Incredulous opponents of the regime gaped when Masur's influence coaxed party leaders and members of the secret police to meet with them at the Gewandhaus for informal talks. Weeks later, when the Berlin Wall fell, its toppling did not unleash the slaughter that usually accompanies drastic political change.

Still, not every Leipziger was impressed by Masur's feat; detractors growled that his concern for the city had been purely opportunistic. As evidence, they dug up a tragic 1972 traffic accident, in which Masur's second wife and two young men in an oncoming car had been killed on the autobahn. It had been Masur's influence with the government, the opponents claimed, that had prevented an inquiry or other consequences at the time. Masur met this challenge with his usual calm, pointing out that an inquiry had been unnecessary since he had at once accepted full responsibility for the accident. As it was, Masur's admirers far outnumbered the naysayers. Thus it was unusual but not completely unexpected when the conductor's fans bandied his name about as a hot presidential prospect for the post-Honecker government. He made the point moot, however, dismissing the possibility as ridiculous.

Leipzig's turmoil did not prevent Masur from keeping up with events on the international music scene. The big news in New York City was the imminent departure of Zubin Mehta, the New York Philharmonic's music director, who was planning to step down at the end of the 1990-1991 season. Newspaper reports detailed the progression of the search for a replacement for the irreplaceable Mehta. Bernard Haitink had been approached but had preferred to stay in his post, as had Sir Colin Davis. Claudio Abbado had considered the position but had turned it down in favor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Masur came under consideration when a survey generated by the members of the New York Philharmonic themselves ranked him top among their guest conductors. Other points in his favor were the rave reviews he had received for his 1989 performances, plus his lucrative recording contracts with Philips and Teldec. Masur accepted the assignment, on condition that it run concurrently with his Leipzig duties. Ever obliging, he even stepped into the post a year early after the sudden death of Leonard Bernstein left several weeks of Philharmonic engagements without a maestro.

Masur found the tenor of the New York Philharmonic completely different from that of the competition-free, tradition-bound Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Far more independent, with a longstanding reputation for challenging conductors, and deeply conscious of their own artistic excellence, the musicians had been, collectively, a tough nut even for the formidable Bernstein, who often had to beg for their attention.

Deft at administration and unperturbed by artistic temperament, Masur lost no time in showing the New York Philharmonic who was boss. "He needed to let everybody know, 'I'm the man, I'm in charge, you're going to do what I ask,'" tuba player Warren Deck told James Oestreich of the New York Times, "And ... if you didn't do it immediately, it was ugly." Most performers chose to comply and found that rewards were swift. First came a return to the maestro's usual modus operandi, which is a reasonable, partnership approach to each project. Then came initiation into the exquisitely detailed analysis that produces his unique musical statement. The result was summed up by principal oboist Joseph Robinson, who told the New York Times, "That concern makes our musical adventures together more rewarding than with most people I've ever worked with."

The proof of the union, one might say, was in the listening. And the listening was great, according to Stereo Review' s Richard Freed, who in March of 1992 reviewed Masur's production of the Bruckner Seventh Symphony, recorded live at his debut performance. "It is a noble reading," said Freed, adding, "there is a mellowness new to the Philharmonic, and it does not by any means cancel out brilliance." With Masur at the podium, the future promised much for the New York Philharmonic.

by Gillian Wolf

Kurt Masur's Career

Rehearsal conductor at Halle State Theater, Saxony, East Germany, conductor at Erfurt City Theater and Leipzig Opera, and guest conductor with Leipzig and Dresden Radio orchestras, 1951-53; general music director, Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, 1955-58; music director, Mecklenburg Staatstheater, Schwerin, East Germany, 1958-60; music director, Berlin Komische Oper, 1960-64; guest conductor in Europe, Japan, and South America, 1964-67; chief conductor of Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, 1967-72; music director of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, 1970--; music director of New York Philharmonic, 1991--.

Kurt Masur's Awards

National Prize of German Democratic Republic, 1969-70; honorary degrees from University of Leipzig and University of Michigan.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 13 years ago

i heard kurt masur thefirst time in lucern switzerland and many times in toronto,i loved his performances at all times,i put him infirst place after bruno walter mengelbert and many others in my world tavels,the ninth of beethoven and the sixths are among my favorites, our daughter wasa cellist and played in the toronto sympfonie, she now is a professor teaching film musik i could go on and on, musik is my religion thomas e bick