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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Kurt Masur: The survivor’s tale

By Norman Lebrecht / July 11, 2007

Kurt Masur looks faintly amazed when I describe him as the doyen of the German conducting tradition. Eighty next Wednesday, and with a BBC Prom on his birthday, he never expected to stand at the helm of his art and cannot quite accept the accolades for his determinedly dutiful service.

Two-thirds of his life was spent under political tyranny, much of it behind a communist wall. He was 64 before anyone offered him a world orchestra and, though he turned the New York Philharmonic from sullen to superb, he was ousted prematurely in 2002 after a boardroom battle. Masur, on the eve of 80, is a man simmering with unrealised ambition, filled with regret for an absent friend.

‘I remember sitting with Klaus Tennstedt in a Chinese restaurant in Leicester Square,’ he relates. ‘We were very happy and he was smoking and smoking. I told him: Klaus, you have been given a talent, you have a duty. Try to stay healthy. He said: you sound like my mother.’ Tennstedt, a naïve genius, died of lung cancer in 1998. He is, to an unrecognised degree, Masur’s missing half, the untold subtext to his life.

They met in 1948 when Tennstedt was leading the orchestra in Handel’s birthplace, Halle, and Masur, as aspiring pianist, was waving a stick on the podium. Exactly the same age, 21, both suffered from a rare hand condition that would end their playing careers. In the gloom of defeat and the glimmer of renewal, they became fast friends and sworn opposites.

Tennstedt was impetuous, shambolic, explosive, romantic and helpless as a kitten up a lime tree. Masur was tight, shy, disciplined. ‘His mother always said: Klaus, why can’t you be more like Kurt?’ laughs Masur, but it was Kurt who longed to be more like Klaus and who, when his pal fell foul of the regime, helped get him out East Germany, at some risk to himself. ‘Of course,’ says Masur, ‘I had to.’

Tennstedt, who became an inspiration to London musicians and an idol to the likes of Nigel Kennedy, is uppermost in Masur’s mind when we meet in a Paris studio to record a hard-talk interview for my new BBC series*. The rules of engagement are no holds barred and Masur talks unconfinedly for the first time about his formative years in the Hitler Youth, his last-man defence of a bridge in the German retreat from Holland, his escape from a POW camp, his ambivalence towards communism and his on-off relationship with the regime which, in the 1960s, kept him out of work for three years. ‘I had to sell my car to survive.’

Loyal colleagues sneaked him engagements until the ban was eased. In 1970 he was appointed to the Leipzig Gewandhaus and stayed for 26 years. One day in 1972, driving his new Mercedes on a narrow road, he smashed into an oncoming vehicle, killing two of its occupants, and his own wife beside him. It nearly cost him the will to live. ‘They took me out of the burning car. My wife was lying on the meadow. I heard the doctor say, this woman is dead. Our daughter, five years old, came over and said, Papa, look my doll is so dirty.’

He survived, he says, mainly because of his daughter, who tootled a toy instrument on the staircase each day as he lay convalescent in a relative’s home. With internal injuries compounded by clinical depression, he refused to think about conducting. Musicians from the Gewandhaus came over and pointed at the schedule. There was a Bach B minor Mass, six weeks ahead. After the final notes, he admits, ‘I am not ashamed to say I wept like a baby.’ Stasi spies reported his every word.

When the state started to crumble in October 1989, Masur averted a threatened massacre by appealing on radio to 70,000 Leipzig demonstrators to come into his concert hall and debate the issues before they reached the tanks that waited in the square beyond. He was nominated for election as the first president of united Germany, but Masur was finished with politics. New York beckoned and he was both surprised and elated to receive international recognition.

He revived New York’s finest without replacing players, using simple motivational techniques to make musicians feel good about themselves and the city to respect them again. For the first time in years the Philharmonic drew rave reviews; in the aftermath of 9/11, it became a focus of consolation and defiance. Masur was conspicuously popular but was defeated by office intrigues. He went on to head the London Philharmonic, Tennstedt’s former band, before finding late contentment with the Orchestre National de France. Members of both ensembles will perform in his celebratory Prom. The Proms, he reminds me, were Klaus’s favourite forum.

The wheel of fortune has turned so often for Kurt Masur that he might feel lucky just to be alive. He received a kidney transplant in his 70s and should be taking it easy. Instead, he is more driven than ever. Birthday concerts are planned around the world, from Rio de Janeiro - where he met his third wife, a Japanese viola player - to Beijing where he will ring in the New Year with Beethoven’s Ninth. For a provincial lad from borderland Silesia this is a global odyssey with a fairy-tale ending.

Kurt Masur, however, is not ready to write the finale. The mission is unfulfilled, the responsibility immense. When he is not conducting orchestras, he is teaching young conductors from the deprived half of Europe to read more, work harder, show leadership, treat their talent as a privilege. ‘If the young people can’t do that,’ says Kurt Masur resolutely, ‘they should get out and do something else.’

* The Lebrecht Interview - starting Monday July 16 on and downloadable as podcast - features Stephen Sondheim, Emmanuelle Haim, Mariss Jansons, Lang Lang, and other leading musicians.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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