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MUSIC : He Took New York : N.Y. Philharmonic Music Director Kurt Masur surprisingly turned out to be the right man for the right job at the right time

April 18, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic.

NEW YORK — Kurt Masur wasn't exactly an obvious choice to succeed Zubin Mehta as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

For most impractical purposes, the heir apparent to this prestigious but troubled podium seemed to be the brooding, magisterial, slightly mysterious Claudio Abbado. Then the Italian superstar answered the call to follow in the vaunted footsteps of Herbert von Karajan in Berlin.

Some hopeful rumor mills suggested that Leonard Bernstein might be lured back to the scenes of his earlier triumphs and tribulations. Others pointed, with varying degrees of conviction, to an appointment for Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Charles Dutoit or Leonard Slatkin.

When administrative push came to realistic shove in the spring of 1990, however, all these high-powered maestros seemed to find themselves urgently occupied elsewhere. Most enlightened observers of New York's musical fortunes--or lack of same--regarded the appointment of Masur as a stopgap measure if not a declaration of desperation.

No one doubted Masur's competence. He was known as a solid routinier , respected as a reliable old-school professional rooted in a noble Central European tradition. He was, moreover, a comforting presence, a welcome guest conductor on cold nights in long winters of aesthetic discontent.

But a useful visitor at Lincoln Center is not necessarily an ideal permanent conductor. Masur, born in 1927, was neither exotic nor exciting. He wasn't--or didn't seem to be--very temperamental. He certainly wasn't glamorous or even controversial. His name on a poster didn't make the collective heart beat faster. The ubiquitous publicity machines would have trouble calling him charismatic .

Bearded, balding and bespectacled, he looked like Central Casting's response to a request for a jolly German grandpa. His greatest claim to fame, admittedly an imposing one, involved his credentials as leader of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra--once Bach and Mendelssohn's orchestra!--in what until recently had been East Germany.

Masur had actually assumed an active position of moral leadership in the unification of Germany and, for a time, had been mentioned as a candidate for a position of political authority. New Yorkers worried about the depth and extent of his commitment to America. They also worried about the toll that frequent continental commuting might take on his reportedly precarious health.

Most of all, perhaps, they worried about Masur's ability to tame the New York Philharmonic, a ferocious beast known to slay conductors for the fun of it and chew the bones between meals.

It takes exceptional fortitude for anyone to survive the daily rigors of this besieged city. A successful music director must be something of a superman: a paragon of virtue to the often-hostile press, a cooperative ally to the stress-ridden board of directors, a democratic boss to an overworked managerial staff and, most crucial, an authoritative yet paternalistic colleague to the huge collection of disparate egos that makes up the orchestra.

Two years ago, the odds did not seem very good for Masur to triumph against the odds. But the man has triumphed. New York is celebrating the arrival of a new hero who speaks loudly and carries a little stick.

He has revitalized an institution teetering on the brink of stagnation. He has captured the imagination, and applause, of a vast, possibly jaded, potentially sophisticated audience. The Philharmonic public now includes a lot of new faces. Students, senior citizens, uninitiated adventurers and conspicuously consuming yuppies now mingle with the usual crowd of seasoned subscribers, bored bankers, loyal blue-haired ladies and garden-variety music lovers.

Contrary to most expectations, Masur turned out to be the right man for the right job at the right time. He was more than a Kapellmeister after all.

He created an instant image of competence reinforced by charm and dedication. With the help of a bright new administrative team--comprising mostly of women--he instituted progressive policies and projected an unexpected aura of enthusiasm in depth. With a little help from some Leipzig associates, he oversaw yet another attempt (remarkably successful) to improve acoustical conditions in the justly maligned Avery Fisher Hall.

He also discovered that Mehta was an easy act to follow.

When Zubin Mehta took over directorship of the New York Philharmonic in 1978, the flamboyant and controversial refugee from Los Angeles had made a similar discovery: Pierre Boulez, his predecessor, was an easy act to follow.

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