Kurt Masur, conductor from Iron Curtain to 9/11, dead at 88

19th December 2015, Comments 0 comments

Kurt Masur, the conductor who seized on music's power to ease Germany's reunification and comfort New York after September 11, died Saturday. He was 88.

The New York Philharmonic announced the death of Masur, one of its longest-serving music directors who led the orchestra from 1991 to 2002 and was credited with enhancing its global reputation.

A German born in what is today Poland, Masur was an unlikely choice to lead one of the New World's pre-eminent orchestras as he had spent his career -- both musically and politically -- within the confines of communist East Germany and was closely focused on the classical canon.

But Masur won wide praise for polishing the musical bona fides of the New York Philharmonic and raising its profile with 17 tours around the world including a first trip to mainland China, now a key country for the orchestra's overseas activities.

"Masur's years at the New York Philharmonic represent one of its golden eras, in which music-making was infused with commitment and devotion -- with the belief in the power of music to bring humanity closer together," Alan Gilbert, the outgoing music director, said in a statement.

"The ethical and moral dimensions that he brought to his conducting are still palpable in the musicians' playing, and I, along with the Philharmonic's audiences, have much to thank him for," he said.

- Sensing music's role in history -

Masur was hailed for mastering the moment after the September 11, 2001 attacks scarred New York. He led the Philharmonic in Brahms' "German Requiem" in a nationally televised memorial service.

The conductor requested that the audience hold its applause, turning the concert into a moment for contemplation on the tragedy.

Annie Bergen, a host on New York's classical music radio station WQXR, later said of the "German Requiem" performance that "the effect was so profound it was as if it had been composed that day."

Masur was similarly credited with instinctively feeling the sense of history in 1989 shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Then the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and a loyal and accoladed East German, Masur went on the radio in October that year ahead of a concert to urge calm as protesters amassed.

The troops did not open fire and Masur's performance went ahead, helping set the graceful and largely non-violent tone of German reunification.

Masur had maintained close relations with East German authorities yet was not a Communist Party member and identified as Christian.

After East German leader Erich Honecker stepped down, Masur wrote him a letter to thank him for his support to the orchestra, drawing criticism from regime opponents.

- Ambivalent on political legacy -

Years later, Masur described the mood as the Iron Curtain fell as "Heaven on Earth" but was circumspect when asked about the lasting impact.

"The spirit of those days has pretty much been exhausted, and things haven't turned out well for everyone," he told Der Spiegel in 2010.

"In fact, for many people, reunification has meant more suffering than gain. And many are quite desperate."

Masur initially took the baton at the New York Philharmonic in 1990 to fill in for Leonard Bernstein, one of his most famous predecessors as music director, who died suddenly as he prepared to conduct Mendelssohn's "Elijah."

Despite his musical background as a classical pianist and conductor, Masur initiated the Philharmonic's collaboration with jazz great Wynton Marsalis who heads the Jazz at Lincoln Center program a short walk from the orchestra's hall.

Yet Masur's strict style did not always win him friends among musicians and administration, and he later said that his departure from the New York Philharmonic was not voluntary.

He was given the title of music director emeritus and took two prominent positions in the European classical world -- music director of the Orchestre National de France and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

France's former culture minister Jack Lang mourned Masur as he paid tribute to his role in closing the Iron Curtain.

"Through his high stature -- intellectually, musically and physically, Kurt Mazur succeeded in delivering a fatal blow to a contemptible regime," he said.

Masur kept conducting late in life but suffered Parkinson's disease.

© 2015 AFP

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