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Adrian Prabava: 'Kurt Masur asked a lot of us'

Discipline, charisma and a natural sense of authority were the qualities that made that maestro a star. In conversation with DW, his onetime assistant conductor tells how Masur adored music - and perfection.

During a course in conducting, Adrian Prabava drew the attention of Kurt Masur, who was so pleased with the Indonesian musician's work that he subsequently asked him to be his assistant conductor with the "Orchestre National de France" in Paris. From 2006 until 2008, Prabava experienced the maestro's work first-hand.

DW: How did you perceive Kurt Masur?

Adrian Prabava: I first met him in 1997, when I was playing as a student in a youth orchestra at a festival in Verbier, Switzerland. I was the chair of the second violins, and he came there and conducted us. We were enthused by his aura and charisma - and by his brass-tacks approach. He expected everything of us. Right away I thought: if I have the chance, I'd like to get to know this conductor better. So when he invited me to Paris to become assistant conductor, I was overwhelmed. From my youth back home in Jakarta, Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra had appeared larger than life, a grandiose symbiosis. The first assignment was to work on Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde," Act Two and the end of Act Three. In the second act, I led the offstage orchestra - and from the first rehearsal, I could see that he was a perfectionist.

Adrian Prabava and Kurt Masur

The assistant and the maestro

How was his perfectionism expressed?

We had to render everything in the score perfectly to truly bring out the composer's intention. Masur's strength lay in his approach. He would also dig into composers' biographies, looking for hints at how to find the core musical statement. He demanded a lot of us so that we wouldn't just scratch the surface. At one point in the second act of "Tristan," I had to respond with my backstage orchestra. The sound didn't travel well. Masur requested a monitor, but they didn't have one. So I said I might be able to manage without one, but he answered: "No risktaking! The performance has to be perfect!" And he was absolutely right. He had to get loud with the technicians, but he got his monitor. When quality was at stake, he was uncompromising.

With iron-clad German discipline and a both-feet-on-the-ground attitude, Kurt Masur is credited with revitalizing the once-demoralized, anti-authoritarian musicians of the New York Philharmonic. Wherein did his authority lie?

It wasn't the ego-flattering kind. He had a certain natural authority in the service of music and the composer. Every musician comprehended that at once. He wouldn't say: "This is how it's to be done because that's how I want it," but instead: "This is how it's to be done because that's what the music calls for." That impressed me. During that "Tristan" rehearsal, we worked on two measures over and over again because he wanted to create a certain timbre. After ten minutes, that particular sound was not forthcoming, but he continued to labor away. At that point, nobody thought it was possible. Then, after 14 minutes, we suddenly heard a new sound quality. Everybody in the room, whether playing or listening, knew: that was the work of a master! He knew exactly how to realize his idea, and he wouldn't give up. If musicians feel, "this is somebody who will fight for something," they're ready to give their all.

Adrian Prabava. Photo: Ulrike von Loeper

Masur made an enduring impression on Prabava

The list of prizes, honors and distinctions awarded to Kurt Masur is a long one. How did he feel about the wide public acknowledgment of his work?

That recognition gave him the clout to speak out on issues important to him. For example, he fought to give music a stronger role in everyday life in Germany. Once, after a performance of Bruckner's Third Symphony with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, he turned to the audience - it was a dress rehearsal with schoolchildren in the audience - and said, "We need more music! The most important thing is for you yourselves to make music!" He knew he was widely appreciated and that his voice would be heard. He used that to address certain issues.

You've described Kurt Masur as one of your mentors. How did he influence your work?

The intensity with which he fought for a work of music left a deep mark on me. He was never satisfied if somebody just played the notes. If a person didn't take the music seriously or didn't invest everything he had into it, he could actually get angry. He was never interested in just a pretty sound but was always on a quest for the truth behind it. For me, that endures like a motto, and of course I'll never forget it.

Born in Indonesia, Adrian Prabava (43) studied violin at the Detmold Music Academy and later with conductor Eiji Oue at the Academy of Music, Theater and Modern Media in Hanover. He also attended masterclasses taught by Jorma Panula, an important mentor for him alongside Kurt Masur and Bernard Haitink. In 2005, Prabava won second prize at the International Competition for Young Conductors in Besançon. He was Kurt Masur's musical assistant with the Orchestre National de France in Paris from 2006- 2008.

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