THE NEW YORK TIMES|
June 3, 2002
HONORED AS EMERITUS, MASUR IS SPEECHLESS
By Anthony Tommasini
Kurt Masur's English is not flawless. Still, the German maestro has never had trouble expressing himself eloquently when the occasion called for it. So, naturally, at Saturday night's concert by the New York Philharmonic, the final concert of the season and Mr. Masur's last subscription series performance as the orchestra's music director, the audience at Avery Fisher Hall was expecting him to make a farewell statement.
Before the performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, which concluded the concert, the Philharmonic's executive director, Zarin Mehta, took the stage to announce that on Wednesday the board had named Kurt Masur the orchestra's music director emeritus, making him only the second conductor, Leonard Bernstein being the other, to be given an honorary position upon retirement.
For once Mr. Masur was speechless. He embraced Mr. Mehta, warmly grabbed the hands of every orchestra player within reach, and acknowledged the outpouring from the shouting, standing audience. But there was no speech. He seemed genuinely overwhelmed.
On the other hand he may have been reluctant to speak. What could he have said? The occasion was surely bittersweet, since the board that had just honored him had also pushed him into premature retirement. The tension in the hall was palpable during the short ceremony.
Mr. Mehta, who admits to being deeply annoyed by audience members who fidget and cough during concerts and then bolt for the exits as soon as the applause starts, began his remarks by thanking the audience for having been so quiet during the performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto on the first half of the program, which was being recorded by Deutsche Grammophon for future release. "It makes us wish we were recording everything," Mr. Mehta said, somewhat testily, as the audience laughed, somewhat nervously. He then spoke of the evening as a historic night, the "culmination of 11 glorious seasons" for Mr. Masur.
A man in the audience shouted loudly, "Why?" Of course, it's hard to generalize about audience reactions. But in this case it seemed that most people took the shouted comment as a criticism of the Philharmonic's administration. Why, in other words, was this culmination coming now? Why just 11 seasons, when Mr. Masur clearly wanted more?
The audience broke into prolonged applause. Mr. Mehta, looking uncomfortable, acted as if the response were supportive of his words and thanked the audience for its touching expression. No wonder Mr. Masur decided not to say anything.
In a way Mr. Masur's farewell speech was this all-Beethoven program, and it could not have been more eloquent. The evening began with Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. The Philharmonic's season was to have begun with Ms. Mutter playing this work. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the German violinist, a widowed mother, said that she simply had to remain at home to be with her two young children and could not fly overseas.
Instead Mr. Masur opened the season nine days after the attacks with a deeply affecting performance of Brahms's "German Requiem" in tribute to the victims.
It was good of Ms. Mutter to re-arrange her schedule so that she could join Mr. Masur and perform this work during his three final Philharmonic concerts on Thursday through Saturday nights. Yet when released on a recording, the performance is sure to divide listeners.
As ever, Ms. Mutter played with sumptuous tone, vibrant colors and bold imagination. But her tempos, especially in the first movement, were radically slow. And tempos, plural, is the right word, since they kept changing with almost every phrase.
If her account of the work was, in the end, unconvincing, it was always fascinating. The surprise here was Mr. Masur, whose Beethoven performances are renowned for their structural rigor. Nevertheless, he completely supported Ms. Mutter's risk-taking approach and made it seem his own.
Mr. Masur's account of the "Eroica" Symphony is by now a known quantity and reliably excellent. For this performance Mr. Masur had nothing to prove. All the rectitude, clarity and fervor that he and the musicians have worked hard to achieve in this repertory was there with no sense of forcing or undue effort. But so were qualities of freedom, looseness and spontaneity. It was as if for the occasion he had said to his players, "We know this work, and how, so tonight let's just enjoy ourselves."
The standing ovation at the end went on for more than five minutes and would have gone much longer. But Mr. Masur, smiling at the audience and looking overcome, finally waved goodbye, then grabbed the hand of his stalwart concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, and led his devoted players off the stage.