Two Cheers for Kurt Masur
When the German conductor Kurt Masur was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic in the fall of 1991, he inherited an orchestra in disarray. Under the baton of his predecessor, Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic’s playing had become slack and undisciplined, and the orchestra had lost its recording contract with CBS. Although such deterioration was nothing new for the Philharmonic—much the same thing had happened after Arturo Toscanini left in 1936 and was replaced by John Barbirolli—Mehta’s tenure was regarded by most critics and musicians alike as an all-time low.
The decline of any orchestra is news, but the decline of the New York Philharmonic has wider implications. It may not be the greatest American orchestra—even in the 30′s, under Toscanini, it was no better than the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky or the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski—but for a long time it has been without question America’s flagship ensemble. Its Sunday-afternoon matinees were broadcast nationwide over the CBS radio network well into the 60′s; under Leonard Bernstein, its popular recordings and televised “Young People’s Concerts” introduced the baby-boom generation to classical music (as well as to Bernstein, the first star conductor of the TV era). And with the opening in 1962 of Lincoln Center, America’s first arts complex, the Philharmonic’s unofficial status as the country’s most important orchestra was, so to speak, cemented. Even now, a quarter-century after Bernstein’s retirement, musicians here and abroad still look to the New York Philharmonic for clues to the state of classical music in the United States.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.