Essay: "The Masur I Knew"

Kurt Masur and Brett Mitchell after performing together at the Manhattan School of Music on March 12, 2004.

Kurt Masur and Brett Mitchell after performing together at the Manhattan School of Music on March 12, 2004.

I first met Kurt Masur as a graduate student in March 2004, when I was one of a handful of young conductors he selected to attend his first weeklong conducting seminar at the Manhattan School of Music. During our first encounters, I was enormously intimidated by the recently named Music Director Emeritus of the New York Philharmonic, but by the end of the week, we were sharing the second half of the seminar’s culminating concert (which was also my New York debut). I began with the Haydn Variations (while Maestro peered on from just offstage – no pressure!), and he concluded with Till Eulenspiegel.

Two years later, after another seminar together at the Manhattan School, Maestro invited me to Paris to audition to become one of his assistant conductors at the Orchestre National de France. Not speaking a word of French, I took him up on his offer, and ended up working with him in Paris and on tour for the next three seasons. Among the many extraordinary musical memories from those years, two in particular stand out: a desperately moving War Requiem at the Basilica of St Denis, and his unforgettable 80th-birthday concert at the BBC Proms, played by the combined forces of his two orchestras at that time: the ONF and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 2008, Maestro selected me as one of his first two Mendelssohn Scholarship recipients, which allowed me to spend a month learning from him as we traveled from Vienna to Leipzig, from Berlin to New York. (It was during this trip that Maestro posed for the photograph below, which captures perfectly the lighthearted, humorous, even silly man that rarely made a public appearance.) Over the course of that trip, Maestro asked me to lead a rehearsal of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Gewandhausorchester, and to accompany an impromptu vocal rehearsal for St. Matthew Passion at the New York Philharmonic. Throughout all these experiences, Maestro helped me grow with both a watchful eye and an open heart. The countless meals and conversations we shared during that month—especially those at his home in Leipzig—will remain dear to me for the rest of my life.

Kurt Masur at Vienna International Airport in February 2008. (Photo by Brett Mitchell)

Kurt Masur at Vienna International Airport in February 2008. (Photo by Brett Mitchell)

Kurt Masur and Brett Mitchell at the Musikverein in February 2008.

Kurt Masur and Brett Mitchell at the Musikverein in February 2008.

Over the many years we worked together, Maestro became for me the greatest mentor a young conductor could hope for, offering far more than technical advice and “tricks of the trade.” Nothing illustrates better the musician and human being I came to know than the time I asked him about a certain crescendo he requested of an orchestra: “Maestro, if Mozart wanted a crescendo there, why didn’t he just write one?” Masur replied, “Because if he wrote it down, you’d do it with your head instead of with your heart.” For Maestro, music was never about sharps and flats, dots and dashes; at its core, music was about communicating thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Technique was important, yes, but only insofar as it served the music; everything else was superficial.

When I learned of Maestro’s passing this past Saturday morning, I was stunned. Yes, he was 88 years old, and yes, had struggled with health issues for some time, but I don’t think any of us ever imagined a world without him in it until he left. As we all mourn his loss, my great hope is that the artistry and humanity he shared for almost nine decades will light the way for those of us who strive to continue in his footsteps.

Farewell, dear Maestro, and Godspeed.