Famed German conductor Kurt Masur dead at 88

Famed German conductor Kurt Masur dead at 88

A key voice for German unification who rehabilitated the New York Philharmonic, Masur was honorary guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic

In this Oct. 8, 2009 file photo German conductor Kurt Masur speaks in front of a piece of the former Berlin wall during a ceremony at the Stasi museum in Leipzig, eastern Germany. (AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz, file)
In this Oct. 8, 2009 file photo German conductor Kurt Masur speaks in front of a piece of the former Berlin wall during a ceremony at the Stasi museum in Leipzig, eastern Germany. (AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz, file)

BERLIN (AP) — Conductor Kurt Masur, who was credited with helping prevent violence after the collapse of communism in East Germany and later reinvigorated the New York Philharmonic during an 11-year stint as music director, has died at 88.

Among his other honors and position, he held the title of honorary guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Masur’s tenure in New York, one of the longest in Philharmonic history, “both set a standard and left a legacy that lives on today,” Philharmonic President Matthew VanBesien said in a statement announcing the conductor’s death on Saturday.

“What we remember most vividly is Masur’s profound belief in music as an expression of humanism,” said VanBesien. “We felt this powerfully in the wake of 9/11, when he led the Philharmonic in a moving performance of Brahms’s ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem,’ and musicians from the Orchestra gave free chamber concerts around Ground Zero.”

“Today, New Yorkers still experience this humanist mark through the popular Annual Free Memorial Day Concert, which he introduced,” he added.

Masur died in a hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut, from complications from Parkinson’s disease, the New York Philharmonic said.

Born on July 18, 1927, in what was then the German town of Brieg — now Brzeg, Poland — Masur studied piano, composition and conducting at the Music College of Leipzig. He was appointed in 1955 as conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic in East Germany.

Masur subsequently spent 26 years in charge of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, where he managed to convince the Communist authorities to build a new concert hall — a rare feat in cash-strapped East Germany.

Leipzig was a focal point for the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations that culminated in the opening of the Berlin Wall and the end of hard-line communist rule in East Germany. Masur was part of a group credited with preventing a Communist crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters.

Masur later said “blood would have flowed” on Oct. 9 that year if he and five others — a satirist, a cleric and three party officials — hadn’t banded together and issued a public statement calling for calm and promising dialogue. Security forces and troops were massed in the streets and young people “were ready to die,” he said.

A month later, the embattled regime opened East Germany’s heavily fortified border with the West. When Germany was reunited on Oct. 3, 1990, Masur directed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the official celebrations.

After reunification, he took charge of the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France, among a slew of engagements that spanned three continents, spurning the political role that some suggested for him. When his name surfaced during the search for a new German president in the early 1990s, Masur said he wasn’t interested.

Instead, he dedicated himself to seeking harmony in the concert hall. Masur was credited with taming the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra seen as an unmanageable ensemble of egos when he took over from Zubin Mehta in 1991.

Masur “managed to get everybody to focus on the product of what we are doing,” concertmaster Glenn Dicterow said before the conductor’s departure in 2002. He said the orchestra was “not the bad boy of music anymore.”

The New York Philharmonic’s current music director, Alan Gilbert, was quoted as saying Masur’s tenure at the New York Philharmonic “represents 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.”

“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,” Gilbert said.

Masur was named the Philharmonic’s music director emeritus, an honorary title previously held only by Leonard Bernstein.

Still, he hadn’t wanted to leave New York but was forced out, losing a power struggle with then-Executive Director Deborah Borda. He was succeeded by Lorin Maazel.

Masur, who had made his US debut in 1974 with the Cleveland Orchestra and also took the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig on its first American tour that year, stepped down as director of Gewandhaus in 1996.

He was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic from 2000 to 2007, and music director at the Orchestre National de France from 2002 to 2008. In July 2007, he marked his 80th birthday by conducting the two orchestras together at a concert in London.

In recent years, Masur said his main concern was to encourage emerging young conductors, declaring that their aim should be to create new impressions for uninitiated listeners, rather than to put themselves on show.

“The role of the conductor had to change, because orchestras have become much stronger,” Masur told German news agency DPA in 2013.

“The conductor used to be a kind of dictator — he was unassailable,” he added. “Today that is no longer the case. Today it is all about making the partnership between conductor and orchestra so strong that the orchestra intuitively follows the conductor in what he wants.”

Masur is survived by his third wife, Tomoko, a soprano from Japan; and five children, including Ken-David Masur, the San Diego Symphony’s associate conductor.

The New York Philharmonic said a private funeral will be held and a public memorial is also planned.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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