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Ken-David Masur: The heritage between father and son elevates Milwaukee’s musical podium

I recently finished Ivan Turgenev’s classic 1862 novel, “Fathers and Sons,” concurrent to the public announcement that Ken-David Masur would become the new Musical Director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO). That news also embraces a great father and son story.

Ken-David Masur is the son of a modern day musical titan, and it is an enormous tribute to the MSO Board for a young man of his talents and heritage to be presented at the podium. The decision was a challenge for a Board, to consider a man of his youth at age 41, to follow the legendary Edo de Waart.

However, in the spirit of the Los Angeles Symphony Board that selected Gustavo Dudamel at age of 37, the MSO’s Board is well aware of the importance of reaching younger leadership to embrace and encourage faithful but aging audiences.

“Ken-David is a once-in-a-generation musician, conductor, and innovator who boasts an impressive resume of accomplishments, yet is endearingly approachable. He was unanimously voted to serve as the next Music Director, given his artistic brilliance and genuine passion for how the arts can unify people and communities. We are thrilled to welcome Ken-David and his family to Milwaukee,” said Doug Hagerman, chairman of the MSO’s Music Director Search Committee.

Maestro Masur’s youth, however, should not reflect his maturity as a musician. Currently the Associate Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the principal guest conductor of the Munich Symphony, he has traveled the world conducting major orchestras in Los Angeles, Dresden, Israel, Toulouse, Hiroshima, Omaha, San Diego, San Antonio, and Memphis. Before taking over the MSO’s 2019-20 season, he will also conduct the National Philharmonic of Russia, The Stavanger Symphony in Norway, and the Collegium Musicum Basel.

“On behalf of the City of Milwaukee we look forward to welcoming maestro Ken-David Masur, in time to inaugurate the symphony’s beautiful new home on Wisconsin Avenue,” said Mayor Tom Barrett, when the appointment was announced. “These are exciting times for both the MSO and Milwaukee.”

The MSO’s new director made his debut with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra on May 19, 2018 and returned to direct the season’s opening concert in September 2018. His new opportunities in Milwaukee will include the dedication of the new Milwaukee Symphony center in 2020. That event will be a significant tie with his father’s own dedication of the Leipzig Gewandhaus forty-one years ago.

The elder Masur began his career as an electrician before studying piano, leading to an appreciation of his roots by the worker-State. When he served for twenty-six years as director of the legendary Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the oldest civic symphony orchestra in the world, Masur’s orchestra received permissions from the STASI given to few others.

One day in 1984, while reading the local paper in St. Charles, Illinois, I discovered that the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur was going to be performing in a high school auditorium in Downers Grove, Illinois. This was five years before the end of the German Democratic Republic in 1989.

I could not believe the news, so I called the high school, was reassured of its validity, bought tickets, and with my wife attended the first Masur concert in the United States. Kurt Masur continued to be the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra until 1996, but in 1991 he simultaneously became director of the New York Philharmonic. He also served as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic beginning in 2000, and simultaneously as musical director of the Orchestre National de France beginning in 2002.

Kurt Masur’s experience in the U.S. led to his Leipzig-born son’s interest for studying in America. Having sung in the Gewandhaus Children’s Choir and under his father in St. Matthew’s Passion, he moved to New York where he studied percussion, trumpet, and composition, and finally enrolling at Columbia University.

“Music allows us to feel what is essential, and through its expression begins a conversation about who we are and where we want to go. This is why I’m so very excited to start with the MSO, in connecting with all those who are moved by both the power of music and the continued evolution of this great American city,” said Masur. “The connections between music and humanity are so interlaced, and have great relevance to the beauty and plight that is life. I look forward to the many ways in which I, along with my family and my colleagues, can be part of the much broader city of Milwaukee.”

From 1998-2002, Ken-David served as the first Musical Director of the Bach Society and Chorus. After his graduation, he returned to Germany and continued graduate studies at the Leipzig Conservatory, The Detmold Academy, and the “Hans Eisler” Conservatory in Berlin where he studied for five years under the renowned bass-baritone Thomas Quastoff.

“The relationship between the conductor, musicians and the audience is equal parts simple and complex,” said Mark Niehaus, president and executive director of the MSO. “Both on and off the podium, Ken-David leads and provokes, but also builds and inspires to create experiences that go beyond the notes on a page. His energy, passion and collaborative nature is the very right fit for the MSO, and also for Milwaukee as its reputation as a culturally vibrant destination continues to grow.”

In 2015, the legendary Kurt Masur died at the age of 81. He is regarded by many as the man who transformed the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and as one of the greatest conductors in modern European history. Because of the relatively closed cultural atmosphere during his nineteen years as a conductor in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) he was not known in the West as well as he might otherwise have been.

Ken-Davd’s father is remembered in Germany as a great leader who helped bring down the GDR in 1989. He was even considered by some as a potential successor to Egon Krenz, the last leader of the GDR. His funeral took place at St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Leipzig and he is buried in the Leipzig Cemetery’s Court of Honor.

Ken-David Masur remembers the father and son relationship that was supportive for him as he became committed to conducting. He would call his father on the telephone and ask whether a composition that he was preparing to direct was also one his father had conducted. The son wanted to know how his father would address the challenges of a given work. They later had the pleasure of conducting together at Tanglewood in 2012, both father and son.

And those memories that are connected with such familial experiences and insights are now being brought to Milwaukee.

“My family and I are humbled and grateful to join such a fantastic team of orchestra musicians, chorus, staff, and board members who are working in harmony for our audience and community,” added Masur. “In particular, I am inspired by the incredible community-wide collaboration to create the new performance home for the MSO. Having seen the plans and having visited the Warner Grand Theatre myself, it is clear it will become a destination befitting a city and region of this caliber. I’m anxious to begin planning the next few seasons, which include the MSO’s 60th season and Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, as well as the much anticipated opening of Milwaukee Symphony Center in the fall of 2020.”

© Photo

Beth Ross Buckley, Stu Rosner, and Wolfgang Kluge

About The Author

David Zersen

David Zersen is a published author and President Emeritus of Concordia University Texas, currently residing with his wife Julie in Wauwatosa.

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