The German conductor, Kurt Masur, is one of the most widely admired and respected musicians of his generation, well known to orchestras and audiences not only as a distinguished conductor, but also as a humanist. His close and intense collaboration with the New York Philharmonic, where he has been Music Director since 1991, has been marked by a consistently high quality of playing and artistic spirit.
Kurt Masur studied piano, composition, and conducting at the Music College of Leipzig. In 1948, he was designated orchestra coach at the Halle County Theater, and later became Kapellmeister of the Erfurt and Leipzig Opera theaters. He accepted his first major orchestral appointment in 1955, as conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, returning to opera in 1958 as general director of music at the Mecklenburg State Theater of Schwerin. From 1960 to 1964, he was senior director of music at Berlin’s Komische Oper, collaborating with influential director-producer Walter Felsenstein. In 1967, he was appointed the Dresden Philharmonic’s chief conductor, a post he held until 1972. In his capacity as the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Kapellmeister, he led nearly a thousand performances between 1970 and 1996 and more than nine hundred concerts on tour.
For many seasons, Kurt Masur served as Gewandhaus Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, a position of profound historic importance that has been held by such figures as Felix Mendelssohn, Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Bruno Walter. Upon his retirement from this post in 1996, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig named him its first-ever Conductor Laureate. Since 1989, when he played a central role during the peaceful demonstrations that led to German reunification, the impact of his leadership has attracted worldwide attention.
Kurt Masur is a frequent guest conductor with the world’s leading orchestras. His USA debut came in 1974, when he led the Cleveland Orchestra and also took the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig on its first American tour. His New York Philharmonic debut took place in 1981. In June 1998, during the Citibank-sponsored Asia Tour, Kurt Masur led the Philharmonic’s first concerts in The People’s Republic of China.
Among his conducting highlights during 2000-2001, Kurt Masur leads a number of concert series with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as its February 2001 tour of the UK. In February, he also appeared as guest conductor with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and in April and May, he guest conducts the Orchestre National de France in Paris and the Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester in Berlin. In November 2000, he conducted concerts with the Yomiuri Symphony Orchestra in Japan, and in January 2001, he returned to the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig for the first time since 1996. In addition, he led the opening night concert of the London Philharmonic Orchestra - with which he will also undertake a major European tour in March and April 2001 - as its Principal Conductor.
The 1999-2000 season included many world premieres: the “Messages for the Millennium” project consisted of new commissioned works by Thomas Adés, John Corigliano, Hans Werner Henze, Giya Kancheli, Kaija Saariaho, and Somei Satoh; the “Disney Millennium Symphonies” consisted of world premieres from Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Torke; and a new work by Wynton Marsalis continued the New York Philharmonic’s relationship with Jazz at Lincoln Center, begun in the 1998-99 season. In June 2000, Maestro Masur and the New York Philharmonic performed for sold-out houses on their fifth European tour, with an itinerary that included concerts in Cologne, London, Berlin, Hannover, Hamburg, Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris, Prague, Warsaw, and the Orchestra’s first-ever visits to Krakow and Wroclaw, Poland.
Under Kurt Masur’s guidance, the New York Philharmonic has launched a number of successful initiatives, including the return to live, coast-to-coast radio broadcasts and the establishment of the Orchestra’s own award-winning recording label, New York Philharmonic Special Editions. He began the New York Philharmonic’s 2000-2001 season with a three-week F. Mendelssohn Festival that featured, among other works, the complete incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with narrator John de Lancie, and the New York Philharmonic’s premiere performance of St. Paul. Other season highlights with the New York Philharmonic include the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s Through the Ancient Valley (Cello Concerto No. 2), with cellist Yo-Yo Ma; the U.S. premieres of Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 9 and Siegfried Matthus’ Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra; and Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, marking the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death.
In their partnership with Teldec Classics International, Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic have made a large number of recordings. Recent projects have included Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Leningrad; Britten’s War Requiem; an all-Strauss recording with soprano Deborah Voigt; and music by Gershwin with pianist Fazil Say. Other recordings include a Liszt/Zoltán Kodály album; the four Johannes Brahms symphonies; a Ravel/Debussy album; the Tchaikovsky piano concertos with Elisabeth Leonskaja; D. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar; and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. These last two earned Record of the Year awards from Stereo Review. With Deutsche Grammophon, Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic recorded a Grammy Award-nominated album of J. Brahms and Robert Schumann with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Masur has made well over one hundred other recordings, including the complete symphonies of L.v. Beethoven, J. Brahms, Bruckner, F. Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Tchaikovsky.
Kurt Masur has been a professor at the Leipzig Academy of Music since 1975 and holds honorary degrees from the Breslau Academy of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Colgate University, Hamilton College, Indiana University, The Juilliard School, Leipzig University, the Manhattan School of Music, the University of Michigan, Westminster Choir College, SUNY Binghamton, and Yale University. In 1998, he celebrated 50 years as a professional conductor.
In 1995, Kurt Masur received the Cross of the Order of Meritsof the Federal Republic of Germany; in 1996, he was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor for Music from the National Arts Club; and in 1997 came the titles of Commander of the Legion of Honor from the Government of France and New York City Cultural Ambassador from The City of New York. On April 19, 1999 in Wroclaw, Poland, Masur received the Commander Cross of Merit of the Polish Republic, one of the country’s highest honors, on behalf of Aleksander Kwasniewski, President of the Polish Republic. Masur is also an Honorary Citizen of his hometown, Brieg.
Since 1992, Kurt Masur has held the lifetime title of Honorary Guest Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In September 2000, he became Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. At the end of his contract with the New York Philharmonic in April 2002, he became the Music Director of the Orchestre National de France and served in this post until 2008.
In April 2012, Kurt Masur fell off the stage while conducting the Orchestre National de France in Paris and was treated in hospital. The same year, after cancelling several concert engagements, he revealed on his website that he was suffering from Parkinson's disease. He died on December 19, 2015 in Greenwich, Connecticut at the age of 88. His survivors include his third wife, the former Tomoko Sakurai, and their son, Ken-David; his daughters, Angelika and Carolin; his sons Michael and Matthias; and nine grandchildren.