Kurt Masur is stepping down as music director
of the New York Philharmonic, and this past Saturday the
audience nearly rose in revolt.
My friends at the orchestra will wince when they read that,
and say both that I'm exaggerating and that I'm reinflaming
scandals that should be old news by now. But something
extraordinary really did happen, something so unusual -- since
classical-music audiences are normally so timid -- that it
almost did amount to an insurrection.
Mr. Masur, on Saturday, was conducting the last concert of
his final season. At intermission, Zarin Mehta, the
Philharmonic's executive director, came out to read a tribute.
He began by noting the occasion -- that this was Mr. Masur's
final concert. (Or, to be precise, his final concert on a
normal subscription series, since he conducts the orchestra on
tour later this year, and will return as a guest in future
seasons.) And as soon as Mr. Mehta said that Mr. Masur was
going, someone in the balcony yelled out, "Why?" The audience
burst into prolonged applause, and Mr. Mehta looked mortified.
"I'm touched," he ad libbed, not convincingly. "No, really,
this is touching."
I won't pretend I know exactly what Mr. Mehta thought or
felt, or how he should have acted. He's a deeply decent man;
he'd tried to make things better, both behind the scenes and
publicly. At least for that brief moment, all his efforts blew
up in his face. Most people in the audience knew -- since
they'd read it often in the New York Times -- that Mr. Masur
wasn't leaving willingly, that long ago the Philharmonic's
board had chosen not to renew his contract.
Mr. Masur had even said as much himself, in a recent Times
interview, and on Charlie Rose's PBS TV show on May 21. And
what's most remarkable is that these battles have been fought
in public at least since 1996, when Mr. Masur, speaking on the
record, compared Mr. Mehta's predecessor, Deborah Borda, to
the Stasi, the dreaded secret police of the former East
Germany, where he'd been both a leading conductor and, when
the East German government began to fall, a statesman who
helped to make the move toward freedom a peaceful one.
Ms. Borda, who now runs the Los Angeles Philharmonic,
hasn't spoken of him publicly, but it's no secret that her
view of him is not exactly rosy. Nor is it any secret that the
Philharmonic's musicians haven't loved him. After Saturday's
performance, as Mr. Masur bathed in bravos from the audience,
the orchestra itself seemed quiet. Some of the musicians
clapped, but I've seen them applaud more for routine
performances by a soloist than for their departing music
director, who'd led them for 11 years.
But then the warmth from the audience was in some ways a
surprise. In New York, at least, Mr. Masur had never been a
popular conductor. He's not exciting on the podium, or
graceful, or friendly. He never had a following, the way James
Levine has, both for his work as music director of the
Metropolitan Opera and for the concerts he conducts at
Carnegie Hall. I don't think I've heard anyone -- not critics,
musicians, people in the music business, or ordinary listeners
-- say they'd be excited to hear Mr. Masur conduct. So the
scandals may have helped to build support for him, by making
him an underdog.
But at the same time, support has grown for other reasons.
When Mr. Masur came to the Philharmonic in 1991, the musicians
weren't playing very well. Under Mr. Masur's predecessor,
Zubin Mehta (Zarin Mehta's brother), performances could sound
both crass and cynical. One greatly respected critic, Andrew
Porter of the New Yorker, wrote that under normal
circumstances, he saw no reason to attend. But then for years
before that the musicians had been difficult and, if you
believe their reputation, remain so. A few years ago, Mr.
Masur told me, on the record, that the Philharmonic musicians
"are the best in the world, if you can make them play
He made them play together -- that's one of his
achievements. He also worked hard, away from public scrutiny,
to make the Philharmonic better by hiring some new musicians.
That meant, at least sometimes, that old ones had to be
persuaded to retire, a sometimes difficult transition that, in
one of the most important untold stories in classical music,
is happening in many orchestras here and abroad. As a result,
the Philharmonic sounds much stronger. I'm not the only one
who's realized in the past few years that, at least when Mr.
Masur conducts, the Philharmonic is reliable. Performances are
strong and honest.
Certainly the concerts in this season's last two weeks were
like that. At one that I heard, the Cello Concerto No. 1 by
the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke could not have been
played with more fervor, or integrity. The Bruckner Third
Symphony shone precisely because Mr. Masur didn't lose himself
in its emotion; instead he shaped and paced it, making it
coherent, rather than vast, messy or extravagant. On the final
Saturday, he loyally followed Anne-Sophie Mutter through what
struck me as a nearly narcissistic reinvention of the
Beethoven Violin Concerto, with most big moments exaggerated
(most often by making them too slow and soft); Mr. Masur, I
thought, could hardly have approved, since he hates
exaggeration and sentimentality. But he stayed with Ms. Mutter
all the way and then returned, after the insurrection, to
shape Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony into a firm, unbroken arc.
But there were limitations, too. Never, in any concert that
I heard, did Mr. Masur make the Philharmonic's rhythm dance.
Never did the orchestra play truly quietly, with what
musicians would call a real pianissimo -- an arresting hush --
or truly loudly, with a triumphant shout. Always there was a
certain grittiness within the sound, as if not everyone played
beautifully, or (talking now of very fine distinctions)
absolutely in rhythm, or in tune. As I listened to "Kurt Masur
at the Philharmonic," a set of 10 CDs the orchestra released,
I sometimes found these problems even more distressing. Mr.
Masur's noble reticence disturbed me, too; in music with deep
feeling, like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or "Missa Solemnis"
and Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," big moments seemed too
Some things were impressive, though: anything by
Shostakovich (a composer Mr. Masur understands, because he
knew him and, like him, suffered under an oppressive communist
regime); also contemporary works, and a playful reading of
Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel." But then I put on a Tchaikovsky
CD that Mr. Masur made with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra,
which he'd conducted for many years in East Germany, before
coming to the Philharmonic. The comparison was devastating.
Here, recorded not so long ago, in 1990 and 1991, was music:
fresh, alive, impulsive, never careless, but almost giddy in
its sweep and passion. Mr. Masur might not have been happy in
Germany -- he's said he prefers America -- but apparently he
made music much more freely there.
And for that reason, I don't think his Philharmonic years
were a complete success. The cards, perhaps, were stacked
against him, but his personality might not have helped. It's
true that he's a man of great integrity. Sedgwick Clark, who
produced many CD releases for the Philharmonic, working with
the orchestra's archivist, Barbara Haws, has glowing memories.
With Mr. Masur, he says, "music was absolutely the first
criterion." At one point, when the Philharmonic was going to
release a set of live Mahler performances, Mr. Masur had to be
told that he wouldn't be on it, because the idea was to
release only performances not otherwise available, and Mr.
Masur had made commercial recordings of every Mahler symphony
he'd conducted with the orchestra. "I'm not a child," Mr.
Masur firmly replied. "I don't have to be on this set."
But then Mr. Masur's integrity also has its troubled side
-- he can be stubborn and, at times, explosive. One music
administrator who worked with him for years described their
first meeting to me. "At my age, I don't need new friends,"
Mr. Masur told him, as if apologizing in advance for any
difficulties he might cause. Faced with opposition, which
anyone in his position might meet, he may have dug in,
refusing to use charm, diplomacy or manipulation to get his
way, as many other music directors would have. By all reports,
he also has no use for publicity and wouldn't flatter critics
privately, or make himself a figure in the media, as James
Levine has done.
Perhaps as a result, he leaves an improbably faceless
impression. He was a man of forceful personal and musical
convictions, but only in his last hours did we start to get to
Here's a comment from an orchestral musician, a
principal player in one of America's better orchestras. She
and I were talking, and she mentioned one world-famous
conductor she loved playing for, because he always took care
with dynamics -- with making the orchestra play loudly and
softly, when it's supposed to do those things. It's amazing
how often conductors don't bother (or don't bother enough)
with that. (I'm not mentioning which conductor she named, to
protect her privacy. I don't want her career to easily be
traced from anything I write.)
I said that Masur didn't do much with dynamics. The
musician laughed, and said something like, "Well, we thought
he did when I played in the Boston Symphony, and he
guest-conducted -- because Seiji never did dynamics at all."
(Support for my Ozawa critique, though
within the business it's routine to hear such things.) I
laughed, and said, "|Well, at the Philharmonic you can see
that he's doing something different in loud and soft passages.
But the difference seems more theoretical than real."
"That's because he has no heart," said the musician,
plainly upset. She wanted music to be better than she thought
he made it.
Wall Street Journal, June 5,