Kurt Masur conducts the Orchestre National de France at Herod Atticus

Kurt Masur, one of the world’s leading conductors, wields his baton at the Herod Atticus Theater this week. Born in Silesia in 1927, Masur was artistic director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus for two decades and music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2002. Today, he is principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Orchestre National de France – conducting the latter in Athens tonight and tomorrow. He recently spoke to Kathimerini. A few months ago, French pianist Francois-Rene Duchable blew up his piano. It was his way of protesting against classical music’s elitist character today. What is your view? I think that Duchable’s take is highly idealistic and quixotic. I believe that the right way to deal with this phenomenon is through education. In Paris, we invite schools to assist with the orchestra’s rehearsals. I talk with the kids, I ask them about their interests and so on. That’s the only way for the public to return to the concert halls. Media cooperation is also important. According to cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms are not enough any more. We have to work on developing other kinds of music in order to keep our minds alive. I consider my mind alive! I’m interested in looking at new scores and if I judge them as attractive, then I conduct them. Quality is not always the criterion. A work must touch me before it touches the audience. In art, you have to be honest. If one person comes to the concert and does not discover the work’s truth, its expression or its quality, not to mention the musicians’ dedication, he will go home never to return. Especially if he’s young. So audiences ought to be prepared before coming to concerts? It helps one to understand the music. In New York and Leipzig we used to organize introductory lectures. In New York, people were very conservative in the beginning. Gradually, however, there are more and more who are willing to discover new works. Do audiences differ in different parts of the world? In the United States, audiences tend to react impulsively, thunderously, but not for long. In London, on the other hand, applause lasts longer. The most spontaneous public is, of course, that of the London Proms (Promenade Concerts) – I’m really fond of this. People are open to music and applause is given according to how they feel about the artists’ interpretation. Today there is a great audience for classical music in Southeast Asia. Do you think this might influence classical music’s future? It looks like it could. We in Europe can only answer back by teaching our kids at an early age. If kids learn to sing together, to play some kind of music together, to be musically active, as opposed to being passive recipients, then they will not be trapped by the entertainment industry so easily. In China and Japan, junior school kids learn to play the flute, to read music. Could Asian musicians influence the European tradition when it comes to interpretation? No, because they are trying to learn the European way of interpretation. In the past, Japanese musicians used to be rather «mechanical.» Chinese and Korean musicians’ creativity, however, is impressive. I was greatly surprised in Taipei. They have the most extraordinary education. Their dedication to European culture is unprecedented and, thanks to their education system, they come into contact with it at a very early age. There are many Asians in European orchestras, while 40 percent of New York’s celebrated Juilliard School are Asians. Is musical education enough? Shouldn’t they learn more about European culture as well? No. Each orchestra has its own interpretation. I recently conducted the Orchestre National de France in a Beethoven symphony cycle and was surprised by how well they played the «Pastoral.» It would have been difficult to achieve such a result working with any German, Austrian or British orchestra. It had to do with French lyricism, which suits this kind of music. At the Gewandhaus, we had Japanese musicians trained by German professors. At the same time, especially in Europe, we must not lose our identity and the differences between the Russian or German school of interpretation, for instance. If the world’s top musicians came together in an orchestra, this would be a perfect jet-set ensemble, playing to perfection, but lacking in character. Your career has been particularly rich. Is there still something you’d like to do? I’m a happy man. Despite my age, I’m still enthusiastic about making music. I’m happy I can conduct such great orchestras in interesting works. I’m also happy to discover new composers. I would like to keep things this way. The last few years I have dedicated more time to teaching. I would like to help new conductors to understand composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann. They are considered minor composers but the truth is that we don’t know how to interpret their music properly. In the old days, they used to say the same thing about Mozart. Those of us who have been around longer must pass on this knowledge to the next generation. Tchaikovsky should never sound like Brahms!

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