Google’s “Doodle” honoring Kurt Masur (from the Google home page)
Google users have probably become accustomed to the replacement of the Google logo with an ad hoc digital sketch intended to honor the significance of the date. Those with an interest in these graphic gestures probably know by now that they are called “Google Doodles” and are often used to celebrate birthdays. (The first Google Doodle I encountered was for Clara Schumann’s birthday. I wrote about it on Examiner.com, taking note of the many children climbing all over her.)
Today is the 91st birthday of German conductor Kurt Masur. Sadly, he died at the age of 88 on December 19, 2015 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He had been a regular visitor to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony; and, once we had become residents of the Bay Area, my wife made it a point to attend as many of his appearances in Davies Symphony Hall as we could manage.
Kurt Masur conducting the San Francisco Symphony on January 13, 2007 (photograph by Magic5227, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
(We also had the good fortune to have a chat with him when he was sitting behind us in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a recital prepared by pianist Menahem Pressler. I opened the conversation by saying that we were looking forward to his performance of the music of Sofia Gubaidulina, and he could not say enough good things about her.) Over the course of his final visits, one could see the Parkinson tremors when he came out of stage; but once he was focused on the music, his beat was always consistently clear.
However, as Steven Musil’s CNET article about the Google Doodle makes clear, Masur was far more than just a conductor. His music education took place between 1946 and 1948 at the University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig, which, at that time, was in Communist East Germany. He became Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1970 and maintained that position until 1990.
That meant that he was in Leipzig in 1989, the time of the rise of the pro-democracy movement across East Germany, whose results included the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Leipzig Masur was actively part of a group that succeeded in avoiding a bloody confrontation between the police and the pro-democracy demonstrators. Masur’s negotiating skills had such impact that there were subsequent rumors that, with the return of democracy, he would be elected Leipzig’s mayor.
Fortunately, he preferred to maintain music as the principal source of his attention. In 1991 he moved to New York to become Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, holding that post until 2002. Once again, Masur found himself living in “historical times,” since he was working in New York on 9/11. He responded by arranging for the Philharmonic to give a performance of Johannes Brahms Opus 45, known as A German Requiem, drawing on texts from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as the Apocrypha.
To this day Masur is the only conductor with whom I have exchanged more than a few polite words in passing, but my understanding of the nature of listening owes more to the performances I had the good fortune to experience than it does to any of his words.