Kurt Masur, who exported his mastery of German Romantic music from communist East Germany to the world during more than 60 years of conducting orchestras in Berlin, New York, London and Paris, has died.
His death was announced by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday, The New York Times reported. He was 88.
Masur’s long career included 26 years leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and 11 years with the New York Philharmonic. His repertoire focused on the great Austro-German Romantic composers — Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn and Anton Bruckner among them. Masur was famous for guiding his musicians to explore a composer’s original motivations and intentions.
His tenure leading the New York Philharmonic was marked by conflict and achievement. The orchestra reached new heights of performance, resurrected live radio broadcasts and created its own recording label under Masur.
Some musicians and managers, though, chafed at Masur’s confrontational style. In 1997, the orchestra’s executive committee tried to get Masur to agree to step down as music director in 2000. He declined and ultimately won the five-year contract extension he had been seeking.
“We had to fight a lot in my years,” Masur acknowledged in a 2004 interview with The New York Times. “In the beginning, my intensity disturbed them.”
After decades of hop-scotching the Iron Curtain from his base in Leipzig — and in spite of a cordial relationship with East German leader Erich Honecker — Masur played a role in the popular uprising that led to the fall of the communist East German government, and the Berlin Wall, in November 1989.
As protests were building in Leipzig, Masur recorded a plea for “a free exchange of opinions about the continuation of socialism in our country.” He worked behind the scenes with national security officials, including Egon Krenz, the Politburo member in charge of security, to undermine Honecker’s order for security forces to open fire on protesters at a demonstration.
Masur was born on July 18, 1927, in Brieg, Silesia, part of eastern Germany that is now part of Poland.
At 18, Masur began two years of study at the Music College of Leipzig, now the Academy of Music and Theatre. At 21, working as orchestra coach at the Halle County Theater, he got his first chance to conduct opera, an opportunity he attributed to the human toll of World War II.
Masur became conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic in 1955. From 1960 to 1964, he worked as senior musical director at East Berlin’s Komische Oper. In 1967 he returned to Dresden as principal conductor, and then took over the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig as well in 1970.
In 1974, Masur made his U.S. conducting debut with the Cleveland Orchestra. He conducted the New York Philharmonic for the first time in 1981.
After his 11-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Masur was given the title of music director emeritus. In 2000 he became principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, a post he held until 2007.
Masur underwent a kidney transplant in November 2001, receiving an organ donated by his nephew. He returned to conducting several months later. In 2012, he sustained injuries after falling off a podium during a concert in Paris. With his wife, Tomoko Sakurai, an opera singer, Masur had a son, Ken-David, also a conductor. He had a daughter, Carolin, a mezzo-soprano, from an earlier marriage.