Kurt Masur: How a German Conductor Rebuilt the New York Philharmonic
Google celebrated the life of German conductor Kurt Masur on Wednesday, with a commemorative homepage doodle on what would have been his 91st birthday. Masur, who died in 2015, spent a large part of his life conducting in East Germany, before taking up the post of the New York Philharmonic’s director in 1991 and restoring its reputation.
Masur was born in Brieg, then Prussia but today part of Poland. While he initially trained as a pianist and cellist in his early years at the National Music School in Breslau, he damaged a tendon in his right hand at the age of 16, so he focused his efforts on conducting instead. He studied at the Music College of Leipzig in East Germany, going on to conduct at opera theaters the city and in Erfurt, before becoming chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic in 1967, then going on to become Kapellmeister of the Gewandhaus in 1970. It was here that Masur unexpectedly received the invite to lead the New York orchestra.
Masur came at a turbulent time for the orchestra. New York Times critic Edward Rothstein described the philharmonic’s reputation in 1992 as “at a low point,” with “unhappy” players in an era where “symphonic music was becoming less important to the culture of New York.” Masur told Scotland on Sunday in 1999 that a member of the orchestra committee said he had received the invite because “you do not fear orchestras.”
The decision was a great success. Masur brought the orchestra into shape, rising the rear stands so different instruments could hear each other better, while moving cellos to the inside and violas to the outside. American Record Guide hailed the new, cleaner sound as “like a mountain stream.” One of his orchestra’s most famous performances was in a televised memorial for the September 11 attacks, where he led a rendition of “German Requiem” by Johannes Brahms.
“Kurt Masur’s unabashed belief in the power of music to make big statements and foster healing has sometimes invited kidding,” the New York Times wrote about the performance. “No longer. If ever there was a moment when Americans, particularly New Yorkers, needed musical inspiration and healing it is now.”