Kurt Masur, who served as Music Director of the NY Philharmonic through the 1990s, returned to lead the orchestra this week in a program of Liszt, Gubaidulina and Brahms. Unfortunately, an eye infection that made it impossible for him to read a score while conducting ruled out the Gubaidulina, so Assistant Conduct Daniel Boico stepped in, with Masur leading the Liszt (Les Preludes) and Brahms (Symphony No. 1) without a score.
Masur, who will be 84 later this year, now looks much thinner and less energetic than when he left the leadership of the orchestra 9 years ago. But when he steps on the podium, the years seem to melt away as the adrenalin of the moment kicks in. I found both performances to be very energized, full of life, in the best tradition of his years as musical director. Although he has cut down on the demonstrativeness of his gesturing from the podium, he still communicates what is needed to the musicians, who respond with total involvement. I saw lots of folks sitting on the edge of their chairs, and the total involvement of the musicians was palpable, especially in the finale of the Brahms.
Masur as music director revived an orchestra that had grown stale under the heavy hand of Zubin Mehta, he modernized the repertory, and he raised technical standards. All of that was in evidence at tonight's concert. Although he could not conduct the Gubaidulina composition, "Two Paths" for 2 Violas and Orchestra, it is well to remember that it was commissioned by the Philharmonic during his music directorship, that he conducted the first performances in 1999, and revived the piece again in a later year, and the piece was undoubtedly on the program because he asked to do it. Thus, Masur fulfilled the important function of ushering new music into the world and giving it repeated exposure. Assistant Conductor Boico and the Philharmonic's Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young produced a spellbinding performance of Ms. Gubaidulina's interesting work. And I spotted Maestro Masur sitting in Box No. 1 on the 2nd tier (the orchestra's box) during the performance. Even if he couldn't conduct, he wanted to hear it performed again – a commentary on his loyalty to the music he inspired.
The thought occurred to me that this might actually be a farewell to the Philharmonic by Masur, given his current physical state. But hope and optimism abound, and he is scheduled to lead the orchestra again early next season in another of his specialties – the Shostakovich 13th Symphony. I hope that he is able to keep that date, because he always has a rejuvenating effect on the orchestra, and his performances are always worth hearing.