This morning BBC News reported the death of the German conductor Kurt Masur at the age of 88. Masur was in the United States at the time. Cause of death was not explicitly reported. However, in 2012 Masur revealed on his Web site that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He posted this announcement after cancelling several concert engagements in the wake of having fallen from the stage while conducting the National Orchestra of France in Paris in April of that year.
Masur was a regular visitor to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in what is now my home town. I was actually living in Connecticut the first time I saw him lead SFS, and I remember that I had never previously listened to such a compelling account of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 60 symphony in B-flat major (the fourth). He had clearly put a lot of effort into making the case that this music deserved serious attention; so much that it may have interfered with rehearsal time for Opus 67 (the fifth symphony in C minor), which he conducted during the second half of the program.
After to moving to San Francisco, I spent much more time in Davies Symphony Hall and made it a point to catch every visit that Masur made. News of his Parkinson’s did not surprise me, because I could see the tremors in his hands as he would come out on stage. Nevertheless, when his mind focused on conducting, both of his hands were steady as rocks while always coaxing out highly expressive performances.
What is more relevant to my personal understanding of music, however, is that Masur remains the only conductor with whom I have engaged in extended conversation. This was the result of a happy accident. The encounter took place in February of 2009, during Sofia Gubaidulina’s visit as SFS Composer-in-Residence. My wife and I had gone to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) for a chamber music recital led by pianist Menahem Pressler, and we discovered that Masur and his wife were sitting behind us. After Mark Sokol broke the ice, so to speak, by going up to Masur and thanking him for visiting SFCM during such a busy week, I turned around and simply mentioned that I was looking forward to listening to his Gubaidulina performance over the weekend.
I was not prepared for the reaction. Masur could not have been more enthusiastic about Gubaidulina’s music and welcomed the opportunity to present it to San Francisco concertgoers. What was most memorable, however, was that the conversation was all about Gubaidulina. Masur never talked about himself, not even mentioned that he had presented the premiere performance of the piece he would be conducting, “The Light of the End,” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As a result the conversation prepared me not only for the performance of “The Light of the End” but also for the chamber music performance of “Repentance,” which also took place in Davies Symphony Hall the following afternoon. “Repentance” is actually the composition I have come to know better, since this past June I was able to revisit it while writing about a new Naxos release of Gubaidulina’s complete guitar works.
Masur is far from the only musician I have encountered who is inclined to prioritize the music being performed over those doing the performing. Here in San Francisco Nicola Luisotti, Music Director of the San Francisco Opera, turned out to offer many significant insights regarding the score for Richard Strauss’ one-act opera “Salome.” However, those insights emerged through a pre-performance panel discussion (called, appropriately enough, an “Insight Panel”). Thus, that was a situation in which Luisotti was addressing an audience. Masur’s insights about Gubaidulina were the product of a one-on-one encounter; and that encounter will remain my most salient memory of one of the most perceptive conductors of our time.