THE PLAIN DEALER|
March 8, 2007
Masur returns to an orchestra he has known long and well
Few conductors today know the Cleveland Orchestra as well as Kurt Masur, even though he has been away from the ensemble's podium since 1991.
Masur made his American debut with the orchestra at Severance Hall in 1974, and he was a frequent guest until he was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1991.
So the German-born conductor is savoring his new time with the Clevelanders, whom he leads in music by Bruch and Bruckner tonight through Saturday, as well as the ability to pursue his art as he approaches 80.
"I'm changing, as everything in life," Masur said after his first rehearsal Tuesday. "Good times, bad times. But one must be grateful at my age I can continue. I have a wonderful young orchestra in Paris [Orchestre National de France].
"In between, it is a joy to have such a polished orchestra," he said, referring to Cleveland's. "Since George Szell, they haven't changed, and that's enormous. The orchestra keeps it by itself, and that's wondrous."
When Masur made his debut here, he was conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, then in East Germany. Founded in 1781, and thus one of the world's oldest symphonic ensembles, the Gewandhaus once was led by such titanic musicians as Felix Mendelssohn, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Bruno Walter.
Masur, who brought the Gewandhaus Orchestra to Severance Hall in 1984 and 1993, said Cleveland officials approached him in the early 1980s about some kind of ongoing relationship. But "that was a former life," he said Tuesday, without further explanation.
Until he conducted at Severance Hall in 1974, Masur had never heard the orchestra.
"I knew the legend of it and the legend of George Szell and what exactly he had achieved here," he said. "The color of the orchestra was so different. To compare Chicago with Cleveland was ridiculous. And to go to New York, it's another character."
The musical world was jolted when Masur, who had spent the better part of his career in Europe, was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic. The famously virtuosic and challenging orchestra had gone through a controversial period under Zubin Mehta.
"The orchestra was frustrated, lonely, not esteemed in the city," said Masur, who recognized that he needed to restore confidence and pride. He did so through exacting work.
"If you treat an orchestra tough, you'll get a tough answer," he said. "This is normal. Nobody cared how they felt. After three years, this was my greatest success. This is the respect you need to be in a great orchestra. That's always been the spirit in Cleveland. It plays a central role in the community."
Masur, who has homes in Leipzig and Westchester County, N.Y., continues to receive credit for helping to mold the Philharmonic into the boldly responsive instrument it remains under current music director Lorin Maazel (Cleveland's former music director). And Masur returns often to the Philharmonic he was there just last week to explore a varied repertoire.
"Now is different," said Masur, who stepped down as music director in 2002. "The orchestra is proud and great. They played marvelously [last week]. It's a great joy. Still, I left something!"
The conductor will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his conducting career next year. In 2009, he'll return to the Philharmonic for a Mendelssohn festival to mark the composer's 200th birthday.
Another composer who has been a constant Masur companion is Bruckner, whose Symphony No. 4 he conducts at Severance Hall this week. He led his first performance of a Bruckner symphony (the Second) when he was 24.
Since then, he has become associated with the Austrian composer of expansive musical essays with feet planted both in religion and in country life. The symphonies' sonorities are closely linked to the pipe organ, which Bruckner played at the church in St. Florian, near his birthplace.
"I wanted to be an organist, before my doctor advised me that my hands would be damaged," said Masur, who conducts without a baton as the result of a car accident in 1972. "From the organ to Bruckner is a very small step."
Masur emphasizes the juxtapositions of the sacred and the rustic in Bruckner's symphonies.
"Every celebration in church was followed by a feast outside eating and drinking and making noise, of course," he said. "It's much more complex than we thought before. For most people, the music was too long and too difficult. But more and more, you feel that people understand."
At his first rehearsal in 16 years at Severance Hall this week, Masur was delighted to discover that the Cleveland Orchestra still understands so quickly.
"I never have said so few words with the orchestra," he said. "They feel."