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Masur conducts last concerts as NY orchestra director

By Martin Steinberg, The Associated Press
Thursday July 11, 2002



NEW YORK— Conductor Kurt Masur displays a framed copy of the first and last pages of the score of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on the wall of his office at Avery Fisher Hall. 

The last page has musical notes handwritten in red, editing changes by one of Masur’s predecessors at the New York Philharmonic — Gustav Mahler. 

The first page has writing by another predecessor — Arturo Toscanini. 

“Changes by Gustav Mahler — unworthy of such a musician,” Toscanini scrawled. 

Laughing at Toscanini’s pique at anyone with the audacity to edit Beethoven, Masur said: “He edited the violoncello because it wasn’t loud enough for him.” 

This summer, Masur joins Toscanini and Mahler in the ranks of former music directors of the nation’s oldest orchestra. After an 11-year tenure — second-longest in the 160-year-old orchestra’s history — he is leaving. 

On Thursday night (July 18), his 75th birthday, he makes his final New York performance as director. The concert, nationally broadcast on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center,” starts with Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture and crescendos to conclusion with Ravel’s “Bolero.” The “Candide” will be performed without a conductor in a special gesture to Bernstein’s legacy to the philharmonic. 

The final bow comes Sunday (July 21) at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., with Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and “Emperor” Concerto, featuring pianist Yefim Bronfman. The 3 p.m. EDT concert will be broadcast on National Public Radio. 

Next season, Masur becomes music director of the Orchestre National de France. He also returns to New York in guest conducting appearances as the philharmonic’s music director emeritus, an honorary title previously held only by Bernstein. 

The philharmonic baton goes to Lorin Maazel, who Masur says will inherit a finely tuned ensemble. 

“They bring me into heaven each night,” he said. “This is incredible. How sensitive this orchestra can play. How sure they can do. How committed they are. How great they are in sometimes being flexible for singers or for soloists. This is a dream. They can fulfill dreams of a conductor. And they do.” 

The birthday concert includes the world premiere of Lukas Foss’ “Baroque Meditations” and an assortment of solo performances by orchestra members. Among them: movements from Brahms’ Double Concerto, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and Dittersdorf’s Sinfonia Concertante for Viola and Double Bass. 

“I wanted really to show the result of our collaboration, that in this orchestra are high-level soloists sitting every day and playing together,” Masur said. 

It was this philosophy that enabled Masur — who led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in eastern Germany for 26 years — to restore the philharmonic. He inherited an orchestra that had foundered by the end of Zubin Mehta’s record 13 years at the helm and had been seen as an unmanageable collection of egos unwilling to sacrifice self for the common good. 

“Certainly, we’re not the bad boy of music anymore,” concertmaster Glenn Dicterow said. “He’s managed to get everybody to focus on the product of what we are doing. ... No matter playing the Brahms’ Third Symphony for the 20th time, he will come back to it a year later and find something new. ... So it’s always fresh.” 

Masur said one way he was able to gain the musicians’ respect was to break their anonymity. “We started immediately to give the audience a knowledge — who’s sitting on the second violin? Who’s sitting on the second flute? What are they doing? What is the background? ... They felt more and more proud to be in that orchestra.” 

Another way was his knowledge of the repertoire and the composer. 

“He’s a very, very serious musician and he never comes to an opening rehearsal without talking to us about what he wants from this piece,” principal violist Cynthia Phelps said. “This is what he thinks, this is why it was written this way. And then he translates that into technical terms during the rehearsal process. ‘You know, this man was very tortured, therefore the tension in this phrase can’t be let up, because this is what he was thinking.’ It’s very, very intelligent music-making without ever sacrificing a huge emotional commitment.” 

He also is a stickler for perfection, expressing his opinions frankly. 

“I think as I started here, the orchestra felt immediately that I am absolutely honest, that I never lie,” Masur said in his German-accented English. “And I tell them honest if it sounded ugly. I tell them honest if it sounded wonderful. And this was the kind of connection that they felt. I never am too shy to say what I feel and what I think. And this brought us together, to trust each other.” 

Masur’s valedictory season began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Instead of opening with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, he had the orchestra perform Brahms’ “A German Requiem” in memory of terror victims. 

“I was convinced that it was the right music for the people who wanted to come to the hall because ... they all came to be helped by music, and maybe to come again into a feeling of life can be beautiful again. And this is the only piece (that) can do that.” 

The final concerts will be bittersweet, too. 

Masur, who got a kidney transplant last year in Germany, didn’t want to leave New York. He was forced out, losing a power struggle with then-Executive Director Deborah Borda. The board wanted someone younger and preferably American. After Borda’s abrupt departure in 1999 and the embarrassing rejection of Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, the philharmonic selected Maazel, who is American and 72. 

“It’s somehow hurting a little bit because you say farewell to somebody you love and that you admire, where you had a wonderful time together,” Masur said. 

The sweet part, though, is that he and his family have a home and feel at home in New York — and he thinks he leaves behind what is now one of the top five orchestras in the world. 

“I feel much more grateful that it worked that way. It could have gone wrong, it could have gone bad. As I came to New York everybody told me you are very adventurous to go there. And I must say, this was maybe the nicest adventure of my life.”