Masur held the Leipzig position from 1970 to 1996. In 1974, he conducted the East German Orchestra on its first tour of the United States. During his 27 seasons with the ensemble, he led the orchestra to become one of the world’s best. His leadership attracted worldwide attention, not only on the concert platform but also a leader advocating peace and better human understanding in crisis-afflicted regions. In 1989 he played a key role in the peaceful demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and German reunification. When he left Leipzig in 1996, the Gewandhaus named him its first-ever Conductor Laureate.
After a serious illness, Masur underwent a kidney transplant in 2001. In only a matter of weeks he was back at work, this time for a series of concerts with the Israeli Philharmonic. "The group made a typical Israeli joke," Masur says, laughing. "They talked amongst themselves and said, 'Hey Mr. Masur, we think you are working us so hard they must have transplanted you with the kidney of a lion."
Tel Aviv, New York and the world
Masur speaks with a special affection about the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite the difficulties in the region, he has worked hard to maintain his commitment with the ensemble. "These people are so highly educated, and they need music so deeply, I didn’t want to leave them alone at this moment," he says. "I will try to go there even if it is sometimes dangerous." Since January 1992 he has held the lifetime title of Honorary Guest Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Today, Masur is a frequent guest conductor with many of the world’s leading orchestras. His U.S. debut came in 1974, when he led the Cleveland Orchestra. In 1991, he became the musical director of the New York Philharmonic, a position he says gave him some of the greatest opportunities in his lifetime.
"I never had to rehearse technical perfection," says Masur, reflecting on his period with the New York Philharmonic. "They always tried to achieve meaning in their playing," he says. "I was so happy to conduct them; they fullfil the dream of any conductor. This was one of the miracles of my life to have an orchestra of this high quality and this commitment and with this very natural beautiful spirit.”
After an 11-year tenure, Masur quit the New York Philharmonic at the end of the 2002 season, having left his mark on an orchestra that has felt the diverse influence of other great musicians including Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and Zubin Mehta.
Perils for European Musicians
Masur is less complimentary about European orchestras. "In Europe we are in danger," he says. "The professional musicians are so self satisfied and so secure that they feel nothing can happen to them. This makes them a little arrogant, and this is not a good quality for performing music.”
Masur's unique approach to music making has earned praise from the media as well as the public. Musical America named him Musician of the Year in 1993. He has been a professor at the Leipzig Academy of Music since 1975 and holds honorary degrees from 12 universities. In 1995, he received the Cross of the Order of Merits of Germany. A year later 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 French government and New York City Cultural Ambassador from The City of New York. Kurt Masur has been an outspoken advocate for music education. He has conducted concerts and open rehearsals with the orchestras of a number of New York's music conservatories.
"I believe that God has helped me," Masur says. "Even with all my limitations he helped me to find the right profession, and I couldn’t be happier with that."
"I don’t talk about being successful, I talk about being understood in my imagination and what music can do for people," he says.