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Classical music: `Never lose sight of what the music means'

From Leipzig to New York, conductor Kurt Masur has been challenging orchestras to see things his way. Edward Seckerson finds him calling the tune in rehearsal with the NY Philharmonic

Like all things in New York, Kurt Masur stands tall and proud and somewhat intimidating. A big man in a big town. He is Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, which makes him bigger than most. Think of the lineage: Mahler through Toscanini to Bernstein and beyond. But Masur wears the title easily. He's had plenty of practice. In Leipzig - venerated city of Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, and Schiller - his 26-year tenure as Kapellmeister of the Gewandhaus Orchestra all but brought him the East German presidency. At the time, he made light of the suggestion: "Am I so bad a conductor that I have to become a politician?", but the offer to stand was real enough. He had become Kapellmeister in the literal sense of the word - "master of the chapel". And "the chapel" - the Leipzig Gewandhaus - had for 264 years symbolised the cultural heart and soul of the old Saxon town. But the soul got ripped out of Leipzig. And the new Gewandhaus stood on Karl Marx Square. That added a further twist to the story.

This was the house that Kurt built. An oasis amidst the dirt and chaos. This was the house that he persuaded Erich Honecker to underwrite but which later (irony of ironies) threw open its doors to the pro-democracy movement - on 9 October 1989, when 250,000 protesters filled the streets of Leipzig. The military was on alert. Dissent and anger grew by the hour. But free speech came to the Gewandhaus that night. Masur played host to the first open forum of its kind in 40 years. And the wall came tumbling down.

To the sceptics, Masur had merely exercised good timing, switching sides while the going was good; but to the moral majority, he had worked the system to their advantage. He was, he remained, the people's champion. He still insists that he entered the political arena unwillingly, not to say unwittingly: "A politician who conducts Beethoven isn't believable," he was once quoted as saying. But then neither are politicians who don't conduct Beethoven. So where does that leave us?

With a tale of two cities, and of two orchestras. But only one Kurt Masur. It is said that when the New York Philharmonic delegation came to him with their offer of the musical directorship, they had figured that anyone who could stand up to the Communist Party could survive a three-hour rehearsal with the orchestra. It is also said that for a time, the Philharmonic (with whom he started guesting in 1981) felt like the mistress, a bit on the side from his wife back home in Leipzig. And the Philharmonic is nobody's mistress. Masur likes to think of himself as a New Yorker now (please note: he was a jazz lover long before he set foot on American soil), but with his string ties and fancy bolos he might just as easily have blown in from Texas on oil business. It's a Germanic face, though (add whiskers to the photofit and you've a passable likeness to Brahms), and the avuncular manner can slip in an instance to reveal the sterner stuff beneath. Masur is well accustomed to calling the tune.

And the tune, on this sweltering New York morning, is none other than Till Eulenspiegel up to his old pranks again. Strauss's witty and hyper- eventful tone poem is a piece that Masur and the orchestra have re-enacted many times, but every rehearsal is a first rehearsal. His criticism (and there is plenty of it) is tempered with encouragement. That's something he learnt from Bruno Walter (a predecessor in both Leipzig and New York). Insist but don't intimidate. He's still working on the "don't intimidate" part. Exclamations of "wonderful" invariably preface the inevitable "but please...", the smile of approval often turning to a frown of displeasure in the split-second it takes to get the words out. As a rule, he tells me later, he prefers his players to express themselves freely. It's important, he says, to hear what the players have to say. Only where they are at odds with the spirit as he perceives it, does he intervene. So just how flexible is he? And how autocratic? "He is both," says Jon Deak, the orchestra's long-serving principal bassist. "He works tough. But we knew that when we elected him. He won't stop until he gets precisely what he has in his ear. But he's passionate, too, and this orchestra, reflective of the city and its amazing artistic ferment has always been passionate."

And volatile. This is an orchestra of soloists, of strong, feisty individuals. To bring them together, to sharpen their awareness of each other, to encourage a more homogeneous sound - these have been Masur's priorities in New York. And no one would deny that he's made a difference. Players speak of his ability to achieve a more patient, longbreathed attitude to phrasing - sustaining, finishing sentences in a way that does not come naturally to anyone living and working in this town. Again, like town, like orchestra. It's a challenge taking time in New York.

Back in Leipzig, they hurry slowly. The Gewandhaus sound has been two- and-a-half centuries marinating. It's probably not so very different now to what it was in Mendelssohn's day. But, more significantly, this orchestra is comfortable living in the past. The scale of the sound is modest. But as Masur points out, a good conductor will adjust wherever he goes: "It's a question of achieving a balance between his own imagination of a piece and the different character of the orchestras... And fresh ideas get passed from orchestra to orchestra. If the players in Leipzig complain that a passage can't be played as fast as I want it, I can say, `I just heard it played that fast in New York or Chicago'."

So how great an adjustment was it coming to the New York Philharmonic? The sheer scale of the sound, the virtuosity, the imperative manner, was this not a significant culture shock after more than two decades in Leipzig? Masur clearly doesn't like where he thinks this is going. "You know, you shouldn't compare so much. It's nonsense. It suggests a kind of confrontation which is not good for you, not good for me..." Confrontation? I'd rather hoped we could expand upon this question of changing orchestral styles. But like I say, Mr Masur calls the tune. It later transpires that he has plenty to say on the subject. Style, he says, is the bedrock of "meaningful" interpretation. It's not enough to play baroque music on baroque instruments. Without the spirit, without an intrinsic feeling for the style and, more importantly, how we can relate that style to our own time, it's meaningless. Counterfeit. He cites Wilhelm Furtwangler, his legendary predecessor in Leipzig. It was not what he did but the reasons for doing it that made him special.

"I always tell my pupils, if you need to make a ritardando where one is not written, just explain to me why. Compare Furtwangler and Toscanini in the opening of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Toscanini's responsibility to the composer did not allow him to make a ritardando out of the opening phrase. But it sounds a little stiff. What Furtwangler does comes from the spirit, from the meaning, and it's absolutely convincing. He frames that opening phrase like a first impression - you sense the moment of arriving. You see, Toscanini was very often driven by his tempo manner. The drive was at the heart of his music-making. It was a combination of American and Italian drive, if you like. He could be impatient. In the Beethoven Seventh, it is fabulous how he brings out the rhythm of the first movement. But you do feel he is hunting the metronome marks, and it can bring a kind of hastiness that you never feel with Furtwangler. Furtwangler is no less exciting, but you always feel that he has somewhere else to go. There is always this sense of building, evolving in his music- making. Now, more than ever, when there is so much emphasis on dynamism and perfection, we must never lose sight of what the music means."

One of Masur's proudest (and finest) achievements to date is his Teldec recording of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony "Babi Yar". A litany of shame. Last will and testament of the Soviet Union. The poems, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, rekindled the angry young man in Shostakovich. Words spoke louder than actions. Yevtushenko reads his own words, his own poems, in this unique recording. And he adds one - "The Loss" - as a postscript to where we stand now. This live recording was made in New York in January 1993 and at the time Masur wondered what it might now mean to an audience who had lived through the discrediting of Communism and the end of the Cold War. "But the impact was incredible. Because this is a document for all time, a living reminder of what art - in this case music and poetry - can do to change the world." You see, he really isn't a politician.

Kurt Masur conducts the LPO on Sunday, 7.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4206)