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Kurt Masur Takes a Bow in New York

After more than a decade, German conductor Kurt Masur is hanging up his baton as music director of the New York Philharmonic. His final concert on Thursday coincides with his 75th birthday.


At 75, Kurt Masur has his eyes set on a new orchestra and a new city

On the last page of a copy of Beethoven’s "Seventh Symphony," red handwriting is scribbled over music notes -- with editing by Gustav Mahler. On the first page, the writing in red ink is Arturo Toscanini’s.

Both pages hang, framed, on the wall of Kurt Masur’s office, in New York.

Both Mahler and Toscanini are predecessors of New York Philharmonic director Masur, the German conductor, who celebrates his 75th birthday on Thursday.

"Politician against his will"

Born and brought up in Brieg, Poland, in 1927, Masur studied piano, composition and conducting at the Music College of Leipzig. Masur was to spend most of his professional life as conductor and director in the former East Germany. It was due to his role in the peaceful demonstrations, which led to German reunification, that attracted worldwide attention to Masur.

On October 9, 1989, as peaceful demonstrators and a regime ready to use violence were in danger of clashing, Masur made the most of his position as long-time director of the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and his good contacts to the East German regime to mediate. He called on the 70,000 demonstrators to remain peaceful.

Today, when the "unwilling politician" looks back on those turbulent days in East Germany, he says: "I am sure that I have become much stronger due to these obstacles."

Reflecting on the years as director in Leipzig, Masur recalls both the good and the bad sides of life under the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) regime: "We had around 82 orchestras in the GDR. Each orchestra received money from the state, to commission two compositions. We had up to 170 first performances a year. ... I tried to get money in New York, so that the New York Philharmonic could commission 4 pieces, but I never got that money. ... We could have given young composer generations a chance to try their talent."

Explaining who does what

With his tremendous creative energy, mental strength and optimistic attitude, Masur took on the prestigious post as director of the New York Philharmonic back in 199. The position enabled him to resuscitate an orchestra that was -- at the time -- regarded as a group of self-centred musicians who were reluctant to sacrifice the self for the common good.

For Masur, one way to gain the musicians’ respect was to break their anonymity. In the months following his arrival, the orchestra would begin its concerts by explaining who was sitting where, and what they were doing. After that, "they felt more proud to be in the orchestra", Masur recalls.

Bittersweet goodbyes

Masur’s exceptional way of focusing on the importance of each separate musician will be shown Thursday evening at Masur’s birthday concert. Here, the orchestra will not only play world famous composers such as Bernstein and Ravel. It will also include an assortment of solo performances by orchestra members.

"I wanted really to show the result of our collaboration, that in this orchestra there are high-level soloists sitting every day and playing together", Masur says.

But despite Masur’s excellent reputation and widespread popularity, both within and outside his orchestra, his final concerts in New York will be somewhat bittersweet.

Masur had no aspirations to leave New York. However, after a power struggle with former Executive Director Deborah Borda, he was forced to go.

The board was looking for someone younger and preferably American. In the end, after the embarassing rejection of Italian conductor Ricardo Muti and Borda’s abrupt departure in 2000, the philharmonic settled for Lorin Maazel, who is 72 and American.

"It somehow hurts a bit because you say farewell to somebody you love and admire", Masur told AP.

After hanging up his baton as music director of the New York Philharmonic on Thursday, Masur will prepare for his next post. The German musician is due to begin as director of the Orchestre National de France in Paris next season.