ARTS / Time changes: The 1989 revolution made Kurt Masur a star, and his life a struggle. Michael White goes to Leipzig to meet the conductor who helped redraw the map of Europe

IF LEIPZIG were a lovelier city, you could describe it as emerging from a Sleeping Beauty complex. One of the great names on the map of music history - a home to Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Wagner - it lost most of its past to Allied bombers and much of the rest to 40 years of wilful neglect by the GDR. Wagner's birthplace is a plaque on a downmarket department store, the Mendelssohn house is a ruin and the famous University Church, built in 1229, was replaced in 1968 by a drab administration block.

But Leipzig is waking up with a vengeance. The city centre is one massive building site, surrendered to predatory developers and muscle-flexing entrepreneurs who smell the possibility of a future boom-town. And as it struggles with the immediate economic chaos of unification, it is suddenly studded with smart little shops selling luxury goods to the very few Leipzigers who can afford them. 'An investment in the infrastructure of the future' is what people call it. They joke - except it's not the kind of joke you're meant to laugh at - that no one in Leipzig can take the same route to work two days running, because new holes appear in the ground overnight, new scaffolding and plastic sheets smother the city's landmarks, and earth-movers block the roads like tanks. Dazed as a dowager in the middle of it all is one of Europe's oldest and most venerable cultural institutions: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Having sailed fairly serenely through the past 250 years in a protective bubble of privilege and tradition, it is justifiably concerned that the bubble is about to burst.

'Tradition,' says Kurt Masur, the orchestra's music director for nearly a quarter of a century, 'is everything to the Gewandhaus. It's what gives us our identity. It's why we sound like ourselves and not like any other orchestra. And yes, we're worried. We used to be a priority: for funding, for audiences, the Gewandhaus came first. Now, in the new Germany, there are other priorities. All this change - you know, the buildings here change for the better, but other things change for the worse.'

To British ears, Masur's misgivings have a dull ring of familiarity. Almost any orchestra chief in this country could talk like this. But in Germany it's a new story. To understand why it's also a crisis, you need to know something of the ancient history of the Gewandhaus and the recent history of Masur.

The Gewandhaus's greatest claim to fame is longevity. Few British symphony orchestras pre-date the 20th century. But the Gewandhaus was up and running at the time of Bach, founded in 1743 by a group of merchants who called their creation the Great Concert. It subsequently acquired a permanent home in part of Leipzig's garment-weavers' hall, and it went on to assume a central role in the development of Austro-German music - which means, effectively, the development of symphonic music. It first achieved international celebrity during the 12 years when Mendelssohn ran it, using it to restore the then-neglected works of J S Bach to the repertory. In modern times its conductors have included some of the most influential figures ever to hold a baton: Arthur Nikisch (the creator of symphony concerts as we know them), Wilhelm Furtwangler, and Bruno Walter - until he was forced out by the Nazis. They took the opportunity to melt down Mendelssohn's statue, which had previously stood in the Gewandhaus precincts. Mendelssohn was a Jew.

After the Nazis came the communists, and the world profile of the Gewandhaus became blurred. Westerners had only limited access to its concerts, and the orchestra only limited access to Western engagements. But isolation had certain benefits. It preserved the distinctive, local tradition, at a time when other orchestras were embracing internationalism. The Gewandhaus had always been a closed community whose members were drawn from within. When Mendelssohn was running things in the 1830s, he set up a Leipzig Conservatory, primarily to supply future orchestral players who would be taught by existing ones. So it remained. Of the current orchestra, 85 per cent studied at the Leipzig Conservatory. The result is a very definite Leipzig sound. Where Western orchestras tend toward the American model of incisive brilliance, the Gewandhaus is mellow, cultivated, deep in texture. Masur's favourite image for their sound is 'picking ripe fruit', and he admits that it's rooted in style rather than virtuosity.

Western listeners can be shocked by the relaxed attitude to technical perfection. 'But here,' says Masur, 'virtuosity is not the point. Most conservatories tell their students: you could be the new Menuhin, the new Heifetz. In Leipzig the students are told: you could go to the Gewandhaus. You're taught to be a member of a family, so virtuosity isn't so important. One of the most English experiences I've ever had was conducting the RPO in Mozart: it was technically beautiful and clean but there was nothing 'in the air'. I say: 'Friends, this is beautiful . . . but it can be miraculous.' Then the leader asks me: 'Maestro, which do you prefer?' '

Masur clearly prefers miracles to right notes. But then, he comes from the same inbred stable as his own players. Born in 1927 in Silesia, he arrived in Leipzig in 1946 - straight from the War - to study at the Conservatory. From there, primed in the unvirtuosic ideals of its teaching, he began the long, traditional progression through the German Kapellmeister system, working his way up a prescribed hierarchy of minor conducting jobs in opera houses until in 1960 he finally made it to principal conductor at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Masur's steady accumulation of responsibility was the approved career path - comparable to that of his contemporary Klaus Tennstedt, who began as a violinist and was the Leader of the Halle Orchestra when Masur was conducting it. 'That was 1948,' Masur remembers, 'and did we have fun then. But you know, we really never imagined the success that came to us - conducting world-famous orchestras. We just weren't driven by the ambition that conductors in the West have now. It wasn't like that.'

In 1967 Masur made a decisive shift in his life, out of opera and into symphonic concerts. He took over the Dresden Philharmonic, and in just three years got to the Gewandhaus. A quarter-century on, he has become an institution, with a face as famous as that of any politician. But the fact is that for a long while he was not particularly well-known outside Germany. His reputation was for solid craftsmanship within a narrow field: essentially Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, played over and over again to conservative Leipzig audiences who wanted nothing more. No one would have earmarked him as international-superstar material.

But what Masur turned out to have, in quantity, was moral force. During all his years at the Gewandhaus he was never a Party member; but even totalitarian politics sometimes yield to art, and he still commanded a degree of influence in public affairs. So it was that Masur became a friend of the mighty in East Germany. Someone who could ring up Erich Honecker and get through. It was his influence over Honecker (not a noted music-lover)

that got Leipzig one of the finest post-war concert halls in Europe: the New Gewandhaus.

Honecker opened it himself, at a ceremony in 1981 which Masur recalls as 'something I think he regarded as one of his proudest moments. A moment of triumph. The people of the city were happy that this house was built. Huge crowds turned out to celebrate. Yes, I think this was his moment.'

Masur's own moment came eight years later, when huge crowds again massed in front of the Gewandhaus. It was 9 October 1989, two days after President Gorbachev had been in East Germany to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GDR, and 70,000 Leipzigers had taken to the streets in protest. It was unprecedented. Honecker had warned them in a television broadcast to remember Tiananmen Square, but still they came.

And Masur took the critical decision - perhaps the single most decisive gesture in the run of events that brought down the GDR - to open the Gewandhaus doors and let the protesters in for the first open political debate East Germany had ever known.

Sitting in his Gewandhaus office, I asked Masur how he came to make that decision. Wasn't he terrified of the consequences?

'Of course. No one knew what would happen, and I had only some minutes to decide - at the risk of everything I have here; of, perhaps, great danger. But I also knew that if I didn't do something I would regret it for the rest of my life. I was here in this chair, and I got a message from the church - a boy came to me: 'Mr Masur, you know there is a police order to beat this demonstration down.' And this was a clear message: they would shoot. I phoned my wife and said, I think I have to intervene. She said OK. So I opened the doors. The police didn't come in. They didn't know what my relationship with the government was, but they knew I was a friend of Honecker. So they stayed outside.'

Opening the doors not only rang the death- knell of the GDR but boosted Masur's credit on all fronts. In Germany his name was widely circulated as a candidate for the presidency (it still is). Abroad, he suddenly acquired charisma. In 1991 he was invited to become music director of the New York Philharmonic: a five- months-a-year commitment, allowing him to carry on with the Gewandhaus, and offering a decent part-time salary of dollars 700,000. The Kapellmeister had finally made it into the jet age.

As he sits in that chair at the Gewandhaus, Masur is the architect of all he surveys: the building, the orchestra, even - in a real sense - the new Germany, which makes it difficult for him to complain about how things have turned out. But he admits to having been 'blue-eyed at the beginning', and is quick to distinguish between revolution (which he wholeheartedly supported) and unification. 'The next generation will be fine: they will learn to overcome the problems. But for this generation I'm sad. There would have been a better solution, maybe, if we'd had more time. As it is, we're in a mess; and unfortunately we have no very good politicians any more. Nobody with vision in the cultural sphere.'

Except, I suggest, Kurt Masur. 'Look, all I do is fight for my orchestra and for what I love about its history and tradition. This is quite enough of a fight if we are to keep what we have had here for 250 years.'

The issue is one of simple economics. The orchestra has survived the end of the GDR with no personnel losses: no one has left to play for more money elsewhere, even though Gewandhaus salaries are still 20 per cent below the going rate in the former West German ensembles. But just to get to that level, the Gewandhaus has had to treble its payments.

It hasn't been able to treble its ticket prices, for fear of losing its audience. And it feels abandoned by the Federal Government, which assumed direct responsibility for funding after unification but has now - far earlier than anyone expected - announced that it will hand the burden back to the beleaguered city of Leipzig in 1995. How and where Leipzig will find the money, even with support from the surrounding district, no one knows.

Masur talks about all this with anger and weariness. 'Before unification, I imagined my life would be settled by now. I planned to leave the Gewandhaus in 1993-94, around our 250th anniversary, and say: 'Farewell guys, you'll get a wonderful young conductor while I ease up, do a little guest-conducting, and please myself.' Instead I end up fighting. That's one reason I accepted the New York Philharmonic: I felt it would give me a more independent status and more power to fight back in Germany. But always this fighting. People say I want to become a politician. Don't I have enough to do, arguing for money, arguing for players?'

The players argument is a separate problem. The Gewandhaus has nearly 200 musicians - which seems extravagant until you know that they also serve the Leipzig Opera and the Thomaskirche, where by time-honoured tradition (that word again) a small ensemble accompanies Bach motets at weekends. There is a lobby on the city council to cut costs by cutting numbers and, probably, taking the Gewandhaus out of opera altogether - a suggestion that Masur resolutely opposes.

The curious thing is that when he talks about Leipzig's problems he repeatedly cites Birmingham as the precedent for a better life. 'This is what we need here, a city regenerated by cultural vision. What Simon Rattle has done in Birmingham is like Mendelssohn in Leipzig. People sometimes ask me when I'm going to leave, and I always say: 'If Simon comes tomorrow I leave tomorrow.' ' Masur looks surprised when you tell him that Rattle and Birmingham have financial troubles of their own; and so do other captains of culture in Leipzig who seem universally to share his romantic view of the British Midlands as a haven of greener grass.

Meanwhile, the Gewandhaus is doing what it can to adjust to a more commercial climate. It has brought in marketing-minded administrators from the West, starting at the top with a new general manager: a Dutchman whose great advantage is political neutrality. Other Leipzig institutions have had to purge their staff - not least the celebrated St Thomas Choir where the Cantor (only the 15th since Bach) was thought to have been too close to the Stasi, the secret police, and had to go.

It is also changing the habits of several lifetimes. There are to be secular concerts at weekends (the Gewandhaus has only ever given concerts on Thursdays and Fridays). And the repertoire is broadening. 'We are playing Messiaen soon,' Masur says proudly. Nobody in Leipzig knows who Messiaen is.

Above all, there is growing realisation that like it or not, the orchestra's defences are down; and this is less to do with funding than with broadening outlooks. As never before, the Gewandhaus players have access to the whole world of music - which in turn has access to them. The cloistered existence that kept their tradition pure is broken open; and even if Masur talks about the tradition as though it were something he would lay down his life for, he remains as responsible for the breach as anyone. His other job in New York gives him a sharp perspective on playing standards; and he has been trying to get more strength and accuracy into the Gewandhaus sound. Miracles are well and good, but the paying public want the right notes too. And the question, still, is: can they really have both?

Kurt Masur & the Leipzig Gewandhaus: Barbican, EC2 (071-638 8891), 21 & 22 Apr; Birmingham Symphony Hall (021-212 3333), 23 Apr; Cardiff St David's Hall (0222 371236), 25 Apr. The Leipzig St Thomas Choir follows in Nov.

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