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Conductor Kurt Masur Dies At 88


We're going to spend the next few minutes reflecting on musical accomplishments. A bit later, we're going to talk about the revival of the hit musical "The Wiz." But first, a remembrance - conductor Kurt Masur died today of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 88 years old. Masur led orchestras in Berlin, Leipzig and London. He's also known for reviving the New York Philharmonic. Jeff Lunden has this report.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: He was one of the last of his kind - an old-world conductor who demanded complete authority on the podium and off. Barbara Haws is archivist of the New York Philharmonic, where Masur was music director from 1991 to 2002.

BARBARA HAWS: So when he's on the podium - and conductors are always making decisions in split seconds - he took that very seriously. And there was no room for discussion, for argument, for another opinion, probably.


LUNDEN: Kurt Masur was born in Brieg, Silesia, in 1927 and came of age in what was then East Germany. His first major appointment was with the Dresden Philharmonic in 1955. But he truly made his mark with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where he was kapellmeister, or music director, from 1970 to 1996. The orchestra is one of the oldest in the world, with a history that dates back more than 500 years. One of the leaders was Johann Sebastian Bach, and Masur recounted on a New York Philharmonic broadcast in 1985 that a lot of other composers had close relationships with the ensemble as well.


KURT MASUR: Mozart was very impatient with the orchestra because he found that people were too old. But Tchaikovsky praised the orchestra very much, and Brahms loved and Schumann loved it. And - a lot of composers I could tell you. In Beethoven's lifetime, they made a Beethoven Cycle of all symphonies in one season.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #1: (Singing in German).

LUNDEN: So it's not surprising that music by the great German and Austrian Romantics was right in Masur's wheelhouse. And no matter how many times he conducted the masterworks of the orchestral repertoire, Masur always tried to bring something new to the performance.


MASUR: I always fear to conduct a piece not to be able to bring this spirit out completely. And I don't always to try to find out how much more this time I can achieve than the last time.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #1: (Singing in German).

LUNDEN: Masur's influence extended beyond the musical realm. As the East German regime was crumbling, he stood up to authorities who were cracking down on street musicians. And by the time Germany reunited, Masur had become a political figure, says archivist Barbara Haws.

HAWS: And it was an incredible shock for those of us here at the Philharmonic to all of a sudden read in the paper that our next music director might be running for the presidency of a major, you know, European country. And we wondered how he was going to balance conducting with that, quite frankly.

LUNDEN: Masur considered a candidacy but decided to stick with music. His arrival in New York had an almost immediate impact on the orchestra, said Glenn Dicterow, who served as concertmaster for four Philharmonic music directors in a 2002 interview.


GLENN DICTEROW: It takes a big personality to united 105 players on stage - to get everybody to be as inspired as he is, and it's hard work. And he's just so demanding and intense that, you know, I think got, just by his sheer intensity of his personality, I think it sort of transformed most of us.


LUNDEN: And most people agreed that the sound of the New York Philharmonic improved under Masur's stewardship. Masur told NPR in 1994 that was his goal.


MASUR: I didn't come to change. I came to add something - what I can do best - meaningful playing, expressive playing, being certain in different styles, having always a question of the highest quality.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #2: (Singing, unintelligible).

LUNDEN: When Masur's contract with the Philharmonic wasn't renewed, he moved on, becoming principal conductor of the London Philharmonic and music director of the French National Orchestra. And when he left those orchestras, he frequently returned as conductor emeritus, a relationship he also had with the Gewandhaus and New York Philharmonic. Archivist Barbara Haws said his visits to the podium in Lincoln Center were always quick sellouts.

HAWS: They stood when he walked out on stage (laughter) not at the end of the concert but at the beginning of the concert.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.

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