Clasical: A mere three score and ten

As Kurt Masur takes the reins at the LPO, he joins the swelling ranks of London's seventysomething maestros. And they're all young at heart.
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The Independent Culture
It seems that London in the new Millennium is set to become the European centre for septuagenarian maestros. Last year, the London Symphony Orchestra lit 70th birthday candles for Sir Colin Davis; next year, the Philharmonia will do the same for Christoph von Dohnnyi, and when German- born Kurt Masur takes to the rostrum as principal conductor-designate of the London Philharmonic on 19 November, he will be 70 years and four months old. Bernard Haitink, another notable near-septuagenarian, keeps the London Philharmonic's presidency.

All four conductors view repertory innovation from a secure bedrock of European musical tradition, and all bring with them a wealthy, weathered - and dare I say - youthful musicality. Masur is among the finest living exponents of Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Reger. He will be in full office from the season 2000/2001, having first conducted the orchestra back in 1987 - coincidentally, in Grieg's incidental music for Peer Gynt, the very work that he is due to perform at the Royal Festival Hall next Thursday.

I wondered how the new appointment might affect the London Philharmonic's current profile. "Masur is a multinational personality who is very keen on the idea of musical exploration," says the orchestra's chief executive and artistic director, Serge Dorny, "That should enable us to maximise our educational and inter-cultural plans." These include forging creative inroads among disparate cultural groups, organising workshops (about 150 a year), creating child-friendly sound-zones while mums and dads attend the concert (principally at the Royal Festival Hall,) and launching ticket subsidies in deprived areas. "I view the orchestra like a precious stone," says Dorny. "If you turn it around, you will see unexpected reflections that add to its value and attractiveness."

Masur's contribution to the orchestra's education programme will include active involvement with its Youth Orchestra, initially by conducting Prokofiev's joist-shaking Scythian Suite later in the month. But then his high standing among young people has long been legendary. During his 26-year tenure as principal conductor of the prestigious Leipzig Gewandhaus [Cloth Hall] Orchestra, Masur founded two children's choirs - in Leipzig and Dresden. "As the members grew older so they progressed to full amateur choirs," he told me in Berlin last Saturday; "and now they include more than 100 kids. Our choral concerts ... are always sold out. Why? Because the children invite their parents, grandparents, their uncles and aunts - an awful lot of people coming to hear just the one child!"

Masur is also keen to consolidate working relationships between the London Philharmonic and leading music colleges. It's the kind of bonding that he has already achieved both in Leipzig (where Mendelssohn set the ball rolling) and in New York (where Masur has served as the Philharmonic's music director since 1991). "Students come to the rehearsals, and we keep the best of them on hand to play with us as possible substitutes," he tells me. "This makes for our own safety: it means that new players know the style, the sound, and the spirit of the orchestra. Orchestras in America are used to open auditions. Potential candidates come from anywhere and everywhere, which is fine; but the idea of nurturing players from young is even better."

He would also like to experiment with rush-hour concerts, an idea that worked particularly well in New York. "Life is changing, and the organisation of life is changing," he says. "We must also involve the other arts, maybe bring music and literature together, find a connection between music and painting, sculpture or philosophical ideas. Attending a concert should mean a lot more than just listening to music for a couple of hours, then going home. We are not `entertainers'. We have a duty to educate our audiences, help them understand better." Significant orchestral works with narrators, such as Honegger's Joan of Arc at the Stake and Franck's Psyche, have already won Masur considerable praise, and possible future plans for London include a Beethoven symphony cycle based on the latest textural sources, complete with open discussions and public discourses.

"At one particular Beethoven concert in New York, we talked to the audience before the event," he recalls, "but just as the programme was about to begin, we suggested continuing the discussion after the concert as well. Would you believe that 500 people stayed? They didn't want to go home!" New music is another priority, preferably served within a menu of older repertory. The idea is to listen afresh to everything.

Like most accomplished conductors, Kurt Masur is an enemy of routine and laziness. "Peoples' tastes are changing, but not all those changes are for the good," he says emphatically. "For example, I would not condone listening to Beethoven `in the style of Mantovani' - I mean, five minutes of a symphony, or the `best' Tchaikovsky melodies condensed into 10 minutes." In New York, he had his work cut out elevating Tchaikovsky from "pop" concert status to serious symphonist, largely by programming all six numbered symphonies in sequence. It was worth the effort. "I once asked the revered Russian conductor Evgeny Mravinsky how he might battle against routine," Masur said, smiling, "especially in works that he played again and again on tour. `That's very easy,' Mravinsky told me, `If I sense the orchestra is playing mechanically, that they feel they know everything, then we do three rehearsals: we discover the beauty again.' And that type of discovery is just as important for an audience."

A born democrat, Masur none the less appreciates the positive application of musical authority, especially when it comes to recording. He cites Herbert von Karajan: "Everybody hated the power that he wielded. But he himself once said to me, `I don't know why they criticise me for that. Only the orchestra knows when we play a piece so well that we want to document it in a recording.'" In other words, it was Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic who decided when to record, not the record company. "What usually happens is that the company asks for a Beethoven symphony cycle; the conductor complains that the orchestra isn't yet familiar with, say, the Pastoral Symphony, and then some executive says, `That's all right, you just rehearse it and then record it.' I can promise you that Karajan's approach is right."

Kurt Masur is, above all, a profoundly compassionate man. He showed unprecedented courage when, in Leipzig in 1989, a visit from Mikhail Gorbachev triggered a series of public protests and he threw open the doors of the Gewandhaus [cloth hall] Hall for what turned out to be the first open public forum in the GDR for 40 years. "Of course, I had never done this kind of thing before," he admits modestly. "But it did show how much the reputation of the Gewandhaus [cloth hall] Orchestra and principal conductor Kurt Masur was in the minds of everybody, even of those who were not concert- goers. It showed that they could actually trust us - and at that time, trust was all we asked for. If music is able to achieve that, then it's already enough for me. You know, I have this recurring dream. I imagine a concert hall that could accommodate all the people of the world, where we could play great music and unite them..." - he stops for moment, thinks, and then adds - "for at least two hours".

Kurt Masur conducts the LPO at the RFH, London (booking: 0171-960 4242) on 19 and 27 November