Kurt Masur, director emeritus of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a famed conductor, died today at the age of 88 in Greenwich, Connecticut, of complications from Parkinson’s Disease, according to the New York Times. His death was announced by the Philharmonic’s President Matthew VanBesien who dedicated their Saturday evening performance to him, with a rendition of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Masur was a specialist in Central European composers, particularly Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Bruckner, and was known to faithfully interpret their work while not having an “immense musical charisma.”
Born in 1927 in Brieg, Silesia, (now an area in Poland) he studied piano, composition, and conducting at the Music College of Leipzig, according to an obituary by CNN. Between 1967 and 1972, he served as the chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic and afterwards became the music director or “kapellmeister” for the prestigious Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
When he started his tenure with the Philharmonic in 1991, the orchestra was considered world-class by name only. In 1992, Edward Rothstein, a former cultural critic-at-large for the New York Times, described how the Philharmonic was in shambles before his tenure.
“Before Mr. Masur arrived, the Philharmonic’s reputation was justly at a low point. Audiences were disenchanted,” said Rothstein, who noted that symphonic music was becoming more irrelevant in New York culture. “The players had long been unhappy; recording engagements were hard to come by, and radio broadcasts were nonexistent.”
Masur’s formal debut as the Philharmonic’s music director was on Sept. 11, 1991, and the program featured works by Bruckner, John Adams, and Aaron Copeland. But even before he took on the role, he had already impressed many critics. In 1990, Michael Walsh called him a “Revolutionary” in an article for Time.
In a report by Bloomberg Business, Laurence Arnold said Masur’s tenure with the Philharmonic was “marked by conflict and achievement.” Some of the musicians and managers would get irritated at his confrontational style. Even Masur acknowledged that he could have an intense presence, when he was interviewed for a 2004 story in the New York Times.
“We had to fight a lot in my years,” said Masur. “In the beginning, my intensity disturbed them.”
It got so bad that in 1997, the orchestra’s executive committee unsuccessfully tried to get Masur to agree to resign from his position as music director. His five-year contract was extended after he declined the offer. Despite these setbacks, the orchestra created their own record label, reinstated radio broadcasts, and “reached new heights of performance.”
In an NPR article, Anastasia Tsioulcas said that the orchestra began to have ongoing collaborations with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, under Masur’s tenure. The orchestra also commissioned more than 40 new compositions by contemporary composers and conductors like Tan Dun, Ned Rorem, and Thomas Ades, to name a few.
Margalit Fox of the New York Times described the famed conductor as “a shambolic, bearded giant” and “the darkest of dark horses.” In a June 2002 Wall Street Journal piece, Greg Sandow, who wrote of his retirement from the Philharmonic, described him as “stubborn and, at times, explosive.”
Following his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, of which he became the first director emeritus, the famed conductor was the music director of the Orchestre National de France from 2002 to 2008. He also served as the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 2000 to 2007, and was an honorary guest conductor for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
He also played an important part of keeping the peace in 1989, when there were demonstrations in Lepzig against the communist government in East Germany. When the Berlin Wall fell that same year, Masur directed a rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for official reunification ceremonies.
According to the Journal News, a Gannett-owned newspaper, the famed conductor lived for more than 20 years in Harrison, N.Y., north of New York City, with his wife Tomoko Sakuri, who survives him. He got involved with the local music scene by becoming an adviser to the Music Conservatory in nearby White Plains, where his son Ken-David studied the trumpet in his teenage years. Masur still kept ties to the school even after his son graduated and became an assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony.
“He was an iconic musical figure,” said Jean Newton, executive director of the school. “But we saw a different side of him — a parent encouraging his son.”
The famed conductor also leaves behind two other sons, two daughters, and nine grandchildren, as well as an impressive list of accomplishments that will be well remembered by classical music fans and musicians alike.
(Photo by Norman Rembarz-Pool/Getty Images)