Soul Man

Grand finale: Kurt Masur takes a bow as music director of the Philharmonic.Photo: Chris Lee

There was a distinct bittersweet aura about the New York Philharmonic’s season finale, a three-week farewell to Kurt Masur after eleven years as the orchestra’s music director. Scarcely anyone, including Masur himself, seems to think that the time has arrived for him to go, a feeling that has only grown stronger over the past few months (along with the suspicion among some critics that the Philharmonic’s incoming maestro, Lorin Maazel, at age 72, may not herald an exciting new era teeming with bold artistic initiatives). No scandals or smoking guns precipitated Masur’s exit. In fact, the most visible internal struggle – open warfare between Masur and Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s executive director, which apparently set the orchestra’s board off in search of a successor – seemed to evaporate when Borda left in 1999 to become managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Whatever the reasons for his departure and however premature it may be, Masur leaves the Philharmonic in far better artistic health than when he found it following thirteen depressing years of Zubin Mehta, a conductor whose day-to-day work too often sounded coarse and commonplace. The orchestra Masur inherited was still potentially a great one, but the Mehta years were so musically drab and characterless that any successor would have been a step up. And indeed there were audible improvements virtually the moment Masur took over. It’s said that morale improved dramatically during the first weeks of the conductor’s initial season. One could hear that in the bloom on the orchestral sound, the musicians’ quickened response – even to guest conductors – and a new vitality in the interpretations of the classics that form the backbone repertory of all important caretaker orchestras like the Philharmonic.

The four programs Masur put together for his valedictory subscription concerts were typical of his musical tastes and priorities. There were no flashy posturings, no gigantic musical epics to flatter a conductor’s ego, no sentimental retrospectives. Instead, Masur chose to bow out with scores that either meant much to him personally or in some significant way related directly to the Philharmonic’s long history. Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade After Plato’s “Symposium” and the Mahler First Symphony fit both categories, and it was a nice gesture on Masur’s part to couple scores by two composer-conductors who preceded him as the orchestra’s music director. It was also thoughtful to spotlight the orchestra’s concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, as soloist in the Bernstein, a piece he plays with the added authority gained from performing it so often under the composer’s direction.

Masur himself has presided over numerous Philharmonic premieres of important new pieces, many of which seem destined to enter the repertory. Alfred Schnittke’s First Cello Concerto is surely one major candidate, first performed by the orchestra in 1991 and again on this occasion by the work’s dedicatee, Natalia Gutman. Schnittke’s multistylistic methods have never been more convincingly integrated or powerfully presented than in this richly inventive, often violently expressionistic concerto. For contrast, the mellow, patiently expansive Bruckner Third, the composer’s first mature symphony, made an ideal program mate, and few conductors better grasp this elusive score’s complex, subtly terraced architecture than Masur.

That Beethoven would conclude this “Thank You, Kurt Masur” mini festival al- most seemed inevitable. The “Eroica” Symphony can still be a major event when freshly imagined and deeply felt, which is what Masur always strives to do (this music can only sound hackneyed to jaded ears that have heard it mistreated in too many second-rate performances). Ditto for the same composer’s Violin Concerto, still a dangerously revolutionary score in the hands of Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose glamour belies the almost Spartan earnestness of her musical personality. Finally, Masur conducted the world premiere of his last Philharmonic commission, Joseph Turrin’s Hemispheres. This score comes with a great deal of extra musical imagery – arcane geometric allusions, references to the earth’s diverse cultures, a memento mori for September 11 – but perhaps it is best heard as a brilliant étude for the Philharmonic’s wind, brass, and percussion virtuosos, who responded eagerly to every instrumental challenge.

No Philharmonic music director can excel at everything, and Masur’s best qualities are certainly very different from those of the other three conductors who have headed the orchestra in my time. He lacks Bernstein’s magnetic charisma and theatricality, Boulez’s probing intellect and Gallic charm, Mehta’s easy affability. Perhaps Masur’s most singular attribute – and this may make him unique among major conductors right now – is his conviction that great music is still capable of exercising a healing power, that it can even serve as a potent moral force. His critics have tended to regard these unfashionable beliefs with a trace of condescension when they surface in public pronouncements or at press conferences. But no one was snickering when Masur conducted an impromptu performance of the Brahms German Requiem soon after last September’s tragedy, a musical event that seemed to move all who heard it, and profoundly so.

Sure, Masur has as big an ego as any conductor, and he wants to make music his way – what else should a conductor do, after all? If the musical results have not been consistently incandescent, revelatory, or even the sort to provoke healthy controversy, no Masur interpretation that I’ve heard has been without a tough integrity or sense of occasion, especially those of the core Central European repertory that engages him most. Many of his finest moments are preserved on the Philharmonic’s latest ten-CD set drawn from the conductor’s performances over the past eleven years. I think they show Masur in the light that he will probably be remembered in times to come: a caring conductor of conscience and commitment who restored spirit and, yes, soul to the Philharmonic. Given the proper encouragement and a few more years with the orchestra, who knows what more he might have achieved?

New York Philharmonic
A series of concerts in honor of outgoing music director Kurt Masur.

Soul Man