Kurt, We Hardly Knew Ye

He bettered his orchestra, but never won enough hearts.

New York

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 together."
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 bland.

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 know him.

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, 2002