Top German talent is fresh face at UK orchestra

Conductor Kurt Masur takes up the baton at the London Phil this month. He spoke to Nick Kimberley
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Like Premier League football, British orchestral life currently finds itself dominated by imports from abroad. To name but a few, the Finns Osmo Vänskä and Sakari Oramo have the top jobs at, respectively, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Daniele Gatti, an Italian, is Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, while the American Leonard Slatkin is the new Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And the German Kurt Masur is about to step out onto the podium for the first time in his job as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Like Premier League football, British orchestral life currently finds itself dominated by imports from abroad. To name but a few, the Finns Osmo Vänskä and Sakari Oramo have the top jobs at, respectively, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Daniele Gatti, an Italian, is Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, while the American Leonard Slatkin is the new Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And the German Kurt Masur is about to step out onto the podium for the first time in his job as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Of course, British orchestras have always taken non-British conductors to their bosom; and, although orchestras everywhere are under severe financial pressure, the feeling remains that a big name conductor is essential. For the LPO, Kurt Masur's track record puts him near the top of the League of Maestros. A distinguished career in East Germany, including five years as Principal Music Director at the Komische Opera, Berlin, culminated in his appointment in 1970 as music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of Europe's finest (in 1996 he became the orchestra's first ever Conductor Laureate). In 1991 he took up the same post with the New York Philharmonic; when he leaves that job in 2002, he will become Music Director of L'Orchestre National de France.

At the age of 73 Masur does not represent a vote for youth, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that the core Austro-German repertoire in which he specialises is no longer enough to sustain an orchestra. Yet Masur, while a distinguished representative of that tradition, is prepared to look beyond it. On 16 September, he conducts the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall, in a concert that also includes jazzman Herbie Hancock, and the African musician Youssou N'Dour. A showcase for the players, then, but Masur is wary: "I hate that stupid expression, "crossover", where nobody's taste rules. An orchestra shouldn't be misused for music they don't want to play: we must stay in our professional place, playing music because the orchestra is convinced it's the kind of music-making it wants. It's not a matter of simply following the taste of the musicians; the question is, does it make sense to play this, or are we only doing it for money? That first concert at the Festival Hall is about different kinds of music-making, it's not about demonstrating that we can play everything. London caught my imagination when I first worked here in 1967. Then it was the musical capital of Europe, a place full of creativity. You can imagine that I was a little shocked when people started to tell me that London had too many orchestras. I believe that, first and foremost, a London orchestra must be a London orchestra, not a touring orchestra, but beyond that any orchestra has to ask itself, 'What is our audience? Is it changing? Are its expectations changing?' An important part of that is convincing young people that an orchestra has something special to offer."

Ah, the siren call of youth. Yet it is not mere tokenism to suggest that orchestras need to attract younger listeners: audiences are in real danger of simply fading away into old age. Masur acknowledges that new music is an essential part of making an orchestra work today. Alongside Herbie Hancock and Youssou N'Dour, his opening London concert includes the first European performance of a work he premiered with the New York Phil: America by Thomas Adÿs, widely fêted as one of the most promising young British composers. Next year he performs another piece he has already introduced to New York, the Concerto for Water Percussion by the Chinese composer Tan Dun: "a spectacular showpiece," Masur says, "but also an outstanding discovery of new sounds."

Not every conductor of his age and pedigree so readily embraces new music; perhaps, having established his eminence in standard repertoire, he has nothing left to prove there, so new pieces represent the challenge, for him and for his orchestras. What, then, does he see as the job of the Principal Conductor? "First and foremost, it's a partnership that we're looking for. I would like to think that my experiences in different countries mean that I can bring a kind of stability that can allow the orchestra to achieve an even higher level of consistency in its playing. But as Principal Conductor you are always a partner, an adviser. You can give the orchestra the stamp of your own personality, but you should be open enough to leave the orchestra its own life."

This is diplomatically phrased. Masur is experienced enough to know that a conductor who tries to shape every aspect of an orchestra to his own will risks bloody-minded resistance; and he is perhaps mindful of the experience of Franz Welser-Möst, who quickly if unjustly earned himself the sobriquet "Frankly Worse than Most" after rubbing the orchestra up the wrong way when he became the LPO's Music Director in 1990. You don't get the impression that Masur is going to fall into that trap: "The role of the conductor has changedsince the generation of dictators who came out of the old conducting school, but I disagree with those who say that conductors are no longer so important, and not just because I'm a conductor. It's a question of insisting on the convincing expression of a piece, on fulfilling the wishes of the composer. I'm not looking for new, surprising ideas from myself; I'm not a composer, I'm a conductor, but if a conductor doesn't give inspiration to an orchestra, they mostly play without inspiration. In those circumstances, the conductor is there simply to keep the orchestra together, and these days orchestras can play together without needing a conductor. The point is more to do with the spiritual leadership of an orchestra. It's important to be aware that we don't need more technical perfection. What we need is more meaningful playing."

Orchestral musicians are notoriously down-to-earth characters, and while they might respond well to Masur's suggestion that "more technical perfection" is not his goal, it remains to be seen how his players, and his audiences, take to his emphasis on inspiration, on spiritual leadership. He talks with a profound, almost missionary seriousness that is as bracing as it is unfashionable: "A concert should make people reflect on life and death. That's what Mahler does, that's what Beethoven does. It's not a question of being serious all the time, but you don't go to church to watch the priest make jokes."

Kurt Masur conducts the LPO at Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121 780 3333), 14 September, and at the Royal Festival Hall, SE1 (020 7960 4242), 16 September . He talks live online to launch the LPO's website, 7.30pm 13 September, www.lpo.org.uk

Comments