The New York Times|
Coverage of the Kurt Masur Conducting Seminar
The Kurt Masur Conducting Seminar Is Opened By...Well, Who Else? (April 23)
For the New York Philharmonic, evidently, the Park Avenue Armory is a place only a maestro could love. Kurt Masur opened the more or less annual Kurt Masur Conducting Seminar on Wednesday morning his fifth in conjunction with the Manhattan School of Music and his first at the armory by describing his thwarted romance with the building.
When he first visited the armory 19 years ago, he told the 13 participating conductors, the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra and a small audience, he quickly grasped its potential. As the Philharmonic's new music director, he thought it might be an ideal setting in which the orchestra could mount something like the BBC Proms concerts in London, which attract many thousands of listeners to the cavernous Royal Albert Hall every summer.
The armory, he said, could accommodate almost 5,000 listeners per concert in what he called splendid acoustics, though they are a matter of some debate. An official of the Philharmonic deputized to scout the terrain, he added, had gone back to report: "This is not a concert hall. This is a dump."
(The Philharmonic had no comment on Wednesday.)
What's more, he said, denizens of the neighborhood around 66th Street and Park Avenue objected to a potentially disruptive influx of listeners. (Do they know classical-music types?) Fifteen hundred they might have been able to accept, but 4,500?
No such throngs are likely here, but canny music lovers might take note. The events are directed toward another longstanding Masur cause, the music of Mendelssohn, and they fascinatingly combine elements of master class and rehearsal, as Mr. Masur works unsparingly and in detail with a dozen young conductors he chose from 105 who had submitted DVD auditions.
Free and open to the public, these sessions give listeners a chance to judge the building's acoustical potential for themselves. The remaining rehearsals, on Thursday afternoon and Friday and Saturday mornings, lead up to a concert at the armory on Saturday evening (tickets $20; $12 for the elderly and students).
Mr. Masur is expected to conduct Mendelssohn's "Ruy Blas" Overture, and eight of the fledgling maestros will each conduct a movement of Mendelssohn's Symphonies Nos. 4 ("Italian") and 5 ("Reformation"). By then, some of Mr. Masur's incomparable magic with Mendelssohn should be heard throughout.
More From the Kurt Masur Conducting Seminar (April 23)
Quite possibly, the finest Mendelssohn band in the city this week is the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra. Partly this excellence derives from the intensive work the dean of Mendelssohn conductors, Kurt Masur, has been doing with the players, directly and indirectly, in the Kurt Masur Conducting Seminar at the Park Avenue Armory. Whether he is addressing the players themselves or the young seminar conductors who are mostly leading the orchestra in those sessions, the players are absorbing the wisdom of a master.
But much of the excellence stems, too, from the players' own skills. It was astonishing on Wednesday to spend a lot of time in the company of Manhattan School students, first in the seminar and then in a production of Johann Strauss's "Fledermaus," mounted by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater. Here, among other things, were two independent orchestras (86 players for the Mendelssohn, 44 for the Strauss) functioning at high levels, extremely high in the case of the Mendelssohn orchestra.
One 10-minute segment of the seminar vividly exemplified both the kind of lessons Mr. Masur was imparting and the orchestra's virtuosity. A young conductor tore into the brilliant opening of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony (Allegro vivace) at a fast clip: so fast that it was remarkable that the student players, obviously beautifully prepared before the seminar, could execute the music at all, let alone so cleanly.
At that, the tempo wasn't all that different from what one often hears from crack professional orchestras and conductors, but Mr. Masur was clearly not pleased. He directed the conductor to the movement's closing pages and had him start there. "Accelerando!" he began shouting, taking his cue from a score marking, "Più animato poco a poco" ("More animated little by little"). His urging produced little result.
"I don't blame you," he said at the end of the movement. "No American conductor takes the accelerando at the end. They can't, because the tempo is already too fast."
"Mendelssohn was not only killed by the Nazis," the always outspoken Mr. Masur added, exaggerating the effect of the Nazis' ban on the composer's music with considerable poetic license. "Mendelssohn was also killed by some American conductors."
So with an awareness of the trap that lay ahead, it was back to the beginning of the movement and a considerably more moderate tempo. And here it was fascinating to hear the young steeds of the orchestra, in sprinting mode and with adrenaline flowing, stumble a bit as they settled into a more comfortable pace. But they adjusted quickly and soon sounded even better in this sunny but now more relaxed music.
The Kurt Masur Conducting Seminar: Now It Gets Serious (April 24)
The Kurt Masur Conducting Seminar at the Park Avenue Armory is no charm school.
"Success is not what I'm looking for," Mr. Masur told a young participant at the first session, on Wednesday morning. "I'm looking for the truth: your heart, your brain, your feeling."
And so, that conductor and her colleagues had better be able to handle the truth. The first to take the podium on Wednesday was all but chased from it after repeated interruptions. "It must be better," Mr. Masur snapped.
The young woman clearly did better, in his estimation. Still, he said, "your left hand makes you nice." "Nice" seems as much a term of derision for Mr. Masur as it was for Charles Ives.
By Friday morning Mr. Masur had winnowed the field to the eight who would conduct the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn's "Italian" and "Reformation" Symphonies at the seminar's culminating concert on Saturday evening, one movement each. And even with them, he was in a combative mood.
Combative in a righteous cause, to be sure: like Martin Luther, the hero of the "Reformation"; like the prophet Elijah, alluded to in the symphony's slow movement with a melody lifted from Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah." Mr. Masur was trying to get the young performers excited about the historic themes in this work, with countermelodies representing the warring parties in a series of bloody conflicts; trying to get them to treat Mendelssohn's music, which is often seen as dainty and decorous, with dead seriousness, to evoke the conflict in the performance.
Here he crossed swords especially with the amiable young man conducting the symphony's scherzo. Or rather, raised his sword but drew little response. Mr. Masur had explained on Wednesday that he viewed this movement as a dance occasionally bordering on demonic frenzy: the romp of a repressed populace, "people who are in prison for a lifetime, but once in a while they explode."
"It's a little bit too friendly," he said now, prodding the young man. "Be more devilish. ...Can you be angry? ...Mendelssohn was so possessed of life in everything that he did. He must be played that way, otherwise everybody thinks, ‘Oh, nice.'"
Anything but that. As for himself, Mr. Masur said, "I like to be a strong enemy or a strong friend."
That's the Kurt Masur the New York Philharmonic players knew, and in some cases loved, during his tenure as the orchestra's music director from 1991 to 2002.
Another of Mr. Masur's injunctions to the orchestra on Friday leaped out in relation to that era: "Start every pianissmo pianissimo, every piano piano. This is all the same mezzo forte sound."
Those might well have been his first words to the Philharmonic. That, at any rate, was one of the most important changes he wrought almost from the moment he took over. Too bad it hasn't stuck.