Music filled with expression savors Masur's rich legacy

N.Y. Philharmonic music director ending his tenure in fine musical form

May 21, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Kurt Masur is currently winding down an 11-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. By most accounts, a battle of wills between the music director and the (now former) executive director led the board of directors to terminate Masur's evergreen arrangement for renewing his contract.

It apparently boiled down to a who's-really-in-charge issue, and an administrator won out over an artist. Never a good sign.

At 74, Masur still has a lot to offer. The London Philharmonic and Orchestre National de France will be the beneficiaries after this season, while the New York ensemble welcomes Lorin Maazel to the podium (and many folks just scratch their heads in amazement).

On Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the Masur legacy could be savored in a presentation by the Washington Performing Arts Society. The New York Philharmonic played with a discipline and depth of expression that reflected his masterful touch.

The two works on the program reflected his sense of perspective. Both were by former philharmonic music directors, making the event a kind of aural family tree. Gustav Mahler, whose brief tenure with the orchestra left an indelible mark, was represented by his Symphony No. 1. Leonard Bernstein, the orchestra's first American-born music director (Maazel will be the second) and certainly the most sensational, was represented by his Serenade (after Plato's `Symposium').

Bernstein's 1954 score for violin, strings, harp and percussion finds the composer at his most original. There's a hint of West Side Story in it, both in the soaring, lyrical lines for the violin and the sudden outbreak of jazzy riffs in the last movement. But what gives the work its depth is the brilliance of the thematic development and the cohesiveness of its structure.

Glenn Dicterow, the philharmonic's invaluable concertmaster since 1980, played with an effortless technique and exquisitely shaded tone. Masur's partnering and the philharmonic's response couldn't have been more supportive.

After Bernstein's world of philosophers and poets came Mahler's world of poets and peasants. From the awakening of spring and jaunting country dances to the sardonic funeral march and cosmic explosion of the finale, this First Symphony holds a wealth of emotions.

Masur unleashed them effectively, if sometimes with a little too much control and neatness. The opening could have used more mystery, the second movement more rhythmic freedom. There were many pleasures, though, especially the gentle shaping of the rapturous theme that rises up in the finale.

With the Washington Opera's curtain-time beckoning next door, I had to opt for musicus interruptus and missed the last, brassy blaze, but I heard more than enough to reconfirm Masur's musicianship and the splendid effect it has had on his orchestra.

Sunday concert

The Handel Choir of Baltimore turned to Brahms on Sunday afternoon at Kraushaar Auditorium. His German Requiem, with its combination of solemn reflection and comfort, finds the composer at his most inspired and inspiring.

The performance, conducted by Elam Ray Sprenkle, was characterized mostly by propulsion and dramatic emphasis, perhaps because the chorus had an easier time singing loudly than softly. More in the way of lyrical beauty, subtlety and breadth of phrasing would have enhanced the experience.

Greater technical control on the part of the choristers would have helped, too. The sopranos encountered strain; the men's voices lacked body. But at its best, the choir conveyed the music's heart. So did ethereal-voiced soprano Hyunah Yu and sensitive baritone Steven Rainbolt. Most of the time, the orchestra proved effective.

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