Kurt Masur has led a vast range of music at the New York Philharmonic, from the heart of the classical repertoire to modern masterworks and hot-off-the-press premieres. Yet if there's one work that holds pride of place in the conductor's estimation, it just might be Bach's St. Matthew Passion, with which he has forged a lifelong relationship. He first encountered the piece as a budding teenage music student, was instantly fascinated, and has led it many times throughout his career.
Mr. Masur finds the St. Matthew Passion inexhaustible, terming it "immensely dramatic and powerful." When he returns to the Philharmonic to lead the work, March 19-22, the vocalists include baritone Matthias Goerne, tenors James Taylor and Dietmar Kerschbaum, soprano Christiane Libor, alto Anna Larsson, and bass-baritones David Pittsinger and Jason Grant, in addition to the massed forces of the Westminster Choir and The American Boychoir. Mr. Masur most recently conducted the work at the Philharmonic a decade ago, in February 1998, so his concerts this month constitute An Event.
"This is a work that touches people today exactly as it touched people in Bach's time," the conductor says. "Bach is making a profound statement about his faith, about suffering and betrayal, and about forgiveness. As a musician, you have to try to transport it from Bach's time to our time. And you achieve that through understanding its spirit."
Although the St. Matthew Passion has long been canonic, it was initially perceived as revolutionary. Bach depicts Jesus's last days theatrically: vocalists, playing multiple roles, sing arias and recitative; dual choruses comment and reflect on the action; two orchestras vividly illustrate the drama. This wasn't what people expected when Bach led the first performance in St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, during a Good Friday service in 1727. "It was the kind of dramatic piece that had never been done in a church before," says Mr. Masur. "We know that one lady came out from the first performance at the St. Thomas Church and said, 'This is not music for the church, this is music for the theater.' But with this Passion, Bach started to make music not only for the church service, but used his imagination to make music for God that was much more powerful, much more giving, than what had gone before."
Kurt Masur's career has long been linked to the places and the music of Bach, and he feels an ongoing affinity with the composer‹a perhaps inevitable sense of personal connection, given that he has led many Bach works in the very places where the composer once led them. And there's another time-travel link: following its premiere, the St. Matthew Passion lay neglected for a century until the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted a performance that brought renewed attention to Bach's achievement. Mendelssohn eventually helmed the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which Kurt Masur would later lead as music director for more than a quarter of a century.
We live in a secular age. Bach composed his St. Matthew Passion to be part of a religious observance in a church, yet today it's performed as an evening's entertainment. The maestro sees possible pitfalls: "The danger is that now people believe their eyes more than their feelings," he reflects, "and some directors try to 'improve' Bach. I saw a horrible performance where they staged it theatrically. It looked like a Wagner opera performance. I was very often smiling during that performance. If you show audiences something now, they think they know it." His approach is different: "To simply listen to the music of Bach means much more."
Mr. Masur was the Philharmonic's Music Director from 1991 to 2002. At the end of his tenure he was named the Orchestra's Music Director Emeritus, and his legacy was celebrated by the creation of the Kurt Masur Fund for the Philharmonic, which supports the Philharmonic debut of rising young conductors. Today, Mr. Masur has many current responsibilities away from New York: as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, music director and conductor of the Orchestre National de France, and guest conductor around the world. Still, he continues to be impressed with‹and surprised by‹the musicians of the New York Philharmonic. "Each time I work with this Orchestra, it is for me very satisfying. Their quality of playing remains high. They are very much an American orchestra. My best example of that was when I started to rehearse [Bernstein's] Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. I made the upbeat and they played so fantastic that I didn't interrupt. They played all the way through. And I told them, 'I thank you very much. The rehearsal is over. You can play it by heart already and I go home to study my score again.' This was one of the examples where you could feel that the Orchestra is stylistically and technically without limits."
Robert Sandla is Editor-in-Chief of SYMPHONY magazine.