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Cheryl North Interviews Kurt Masur

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - November 1, 2002, under headline,"Masur's Life of Triumphs through the Impossible"

Some famous music makers are far more than just musicians. Some, like renowned conductor Kurt Masur, become, during the course of a lifetime, great humanitarians and citizens of the world.

I had an opportunity to chat with the venerable Maestro and his ebullient Japanese-born wife, Tomoko, this past week while he was in the Bay Area conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a thoughtful, deeply felt interpretation of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Congenial and quick-witted, Masur responded with warmth and good spirits to all those around the table we shared during a post-concert supper at San Francisco's Mandarin Restaurant. Admittedly hungry after the performance, he launched into the Chinese delicacies with gusto, paying special attention to the fortune cookie at the meal's end.

"It was in a Chinese fortune cookie many years ago that I got some of the best advice of my life," he announced. "It said 'Every great accomplishment is at first impossible.' That was so important to me that I had it framed and mounted on the wall so that I, as well as my visitors and fellow musicians, could see it every day."

Masur has indeed been faced with many seemingly impossible situations during his 75 years. When only 17, he was forced by the Nazis to serve in the Wehrmacht for the last three desperate months of World War II. Ever sophisticated and urbane, he did not divulge details at the dinner table, but rather, in a talk the next day to students and faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music during which he explained, "We (his company of fellow-teenagers) started out 130, and we came back 27. This is not to describe my own fate - I am grateful because I survived - but to describe how deeply I am moved by the War Requiem," to which he added the conviction that there few real winners in most wars ... only losers.

There are many other endeavors that reflect his deep devotion to humanity and peace. He used his status as a world-renown artist to help prevent violence in Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, and was subsequently awarded the prestigious "Cross with Star of the Order of Merits of the Federal Republic of Germany" by its President Johannes Rau, with the beaming approval of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Such actions have also won him the "Commander Cross of Merit of the Polish Republic" from Polish President Aleksander Kwas, and the "Commander of the Legion of Honor" title by the government of France. He also has a dozen honorary doctorates to his credit.

Masur was born in the small town of Brieg, Silesia. When he was only five, he was able to go to the piano and perfectly repeat a passage of music with which his older sister had been struggling. He went on to study music at Leipzig's School of Music until the war's outbreak.

After the war, he continued his music study and played the string bass with a jazz combo in small clubs at night to support himself. "We could play 160 different titles without any music," he proudly told his dinner companions Thursday eve.

His first major musical appointment came in 1955 when he was named conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic. Since then he has risen to the status of one of the world's greatest conductors, presiding over such major orchestras as the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, thus following in the footsteps of Felix Mendelssohn, Artur Nikisch, Kurt Furtwangler, and Bruno Walter; the Cleveland Orchestra; the New York, London, and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras, and as guest conductor for many more. He is presently the music director/conductor of the Orchestre National de France.

In most of these posts, Masur uniquely distinguished and endeared himself well beyond the expected. He was awarded the first-ever honor of "Conductor Laureate" by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; given the lifetime title of "Honorary Guest Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic;" and named "Music Director Emeritus" in June, 2002 by the New York Philharmonic, making him the only person other than Leonard Bernstein to receive an honorary title from that organization.

The New York Philharmonic honor was awarded even though his departure last season as its conductor was neither voluntary nor at the behest of the musicians. NY Concertmaster Glen Dicterow's comments about the orchestra's progress under Masur are quoted in Musical America as "We (the orchestra) listen to each other more, we breathe together, there's an esprit de corps amonsts us. It's just a tighter situation than it once was."

In the same article, Masur is reported to have said, "They (the orchestra members) understood that all I wanted was to work together for quality, for responsibility toward the composer, for meaningful interpretations. We will miss each other."

Happily, his domestic life is on the idyllic side. Tomoko smilingly relealed, "We fell in love when he was a guest conductor more than 25 years ago in Brazil and I was one of the violists." After a brief courtship, they married and now have a son, Ken David, who is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and now hopes to study voice in Detmold, Germany with Thomas Quasthoff.

They both described the place they consider home as "a lovely house with a garden and a fine kitchen in Westchester, New York." "The kitchen is VERY important to Kurt," Tomoko added. "Sometimes he even works on his musical scores on the kitchen table so he can be with me while I am cooking!"

One of Masur's greatest challenges happened last year when a grave kidney condition necessitated a transplant. After a grueling period during which his life consisted of long hours of dialysis broken only by recesses to the New York Philharmonic podium for rehearsals and performances, his nephew volunteered to donate a kidney. The match was perfect -- and within weeks Masur, standing straight and tall (although with telling lines added to his face), was back to podium. "It seems impossible -- like a miracle -- that he as recovered so well," Tomoko said.

Then someone on the other side of the table broke open one of the fortune cookies and waved its little fortune in the air. Looking at the Maestro, the rest of the guests smiled and he nodded in ascent.

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