Meet the Symphony’s New Maestro
Ken-David Masur still shoots hoops and was a wizard at ping pong. He also conducts with great passion.
German-born American conductor Ken-David Masur is the son of famed conductor Kurt Masur and Masur’s third wife, the Japanese soprano Tomoko Sakurai. Ken-David began piano studies at age 6 and also trained as a singer and trumpet player before building a career as conductor, mostly in America. He and his wife, the pianist Melinda Lee Masur, have three children and together founded the Chelsea Music Festival in New York City and serve as its artistic directors. He now has a four-year contract to serve as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which begins this season. I sat down recently with Maestro Masur to discuss music, his upbringing and his outside interests, as he wound down a long day with a burger and a beer.
Q: So first of all, I love the programming on this season. You’ve got some German repertoire that might have a personal connection for you after growing up in Leipzig. Is there a particular evening of music you want to highlight?
Masur: All the programs I feel very personally connected to. I think that was one of the leitmotifs: make the audience of Milwaukee get to know you. So it was trying to find a way to create menus, and I like to use that analogy.
Q: And I have a question about your Chelsea Music Festival [which combines music with food]…
Masur: (laughs) And in many ways my wife and I have learned from the festival, to think of programming like a menu. There’s got to be some balance, something new you can explore. Even if it’s standard repertoire or known repertoire, something you want to come to fresh. You’re actually helping the audience if you schedule a contemporary composer, or one that is generally not heard that often. For me, it was important to combine these things. So the pieces are all connected to me personally because I feel strongly about them. But if I had to choose, I would look to the opening program, which is somewhat of a portrait of my upbringing.
There are two ways to look at programs. One is adventurous, meaning you start at home and you return home. The other is in form of a quest; You’re asking people to come along and asking them to trust you completely, without knowing whether or not you will return home.
Masur: Toward the Unknown Region! Thank you very much. And I think Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region is in the programming symbolically because we want everyone to know we’re in the same boat here as we move into this new venue, this new home… starting a new chapter for this city and for the organization, and inviting people to do it.
For the opening month, it’s a program with [Richard] Wagner, who was born in my hometown. The Schumann house is there. It’s the time that was Robert [Schumann] and Clara’s happiest, perhaps. And because it’s Clara Schumann’s 200th anniversary, we had to do the piano concerto. Even though we’re not performing her piano concerto, this is the piece that, because of her dedication and virtuosity, has made it up the ranks as one of the greatest piano concertos of all time! We will perform it with an extraordinary soloist, but for me personally it makes me think of my wife because we’ve performed it together. And that connects us because Schumann is our favorite composer.
Q: That’s a really cool full-circle thing.
Masur: Yeah. She accompanied me in all the Schumann song cycles. We were students and sang almost the complete range of Schumann songs together.
Q: I noticed that in the season finale, you have Emily Pogorelc, who’s a Milwaukee native, as the soprano soloist in Dvorak’s Te Deum.
Masur: Yes, and that’s intentional! In the very beginning my goal was to find out: what do we have here? Who’s from here? All the artists that are going on wonderful careers. The next generation. We want to celebrate that. With Emily, the idea of inviting somebody to come close the season when it’s a program titled “Everyone Sang”, was an opportunity to finish a season in such a way that we’re saying thanks for what has happened and we are fearless for what’s to come.
Q: The season features some overtures and suites from operas like Carmen, Fidelio, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Der Rosenkavalier. What is your relationship to opera and is there an opera you’d be interested in staging somewhere down the road?
Masur: Good question! I can say my entire family was in the opera business. My sister still is. My mother was an opera singer and played for opera. My father was first and foremost an opera conductor. I actually never saw him conduct in the pit because he stopped that life in the 60s, but I have recordings. And because of the history with my family, I said, “Oh, I don’t need to do that.” That world of opera is its own animal. I have not done any fully staged operas. Maybe at some point in the future. But I never said, “I have to go that route.” What I’ve done instead is to serve some of the great vocal symphonic repertoire that’s out there. There are some great works to be done with our fantastic symphony chorus, and I certainly want to explore those.
So with opera, I will probably do a couple semi-staged things, and especially when we get into the new hall we want to do things that are visually striking, that incorporate the venue and really customize it to that.
Q: I’ve read about your development of the Chelsea Music Festival, and pairing classical concerts with culinary experiences. Which cuisines interest you?
Masur: We love all kinds of cuisines. The chefs we work with have come from the Culinary Institute of America, the other institutes. We’ve had chefs from Finland when we did Finnish programs. We had a master star chef from Finland who’s known to be a forager. So we had the Avanti Chamber Orchestra, paired him up with some of those programs, and guess what he did? He went to go forage at Central Park, he went to forage outside of New York. He’d find these mushrooms, and create dishes out of basically what he found on trees and bushes. That is mind-blowing. To be talking about it with him and to see the process certainly gives us ideas in terms of programming. Suddenly we are inspired to look in unusual places or to know that we can find treasure if we put certain things into the right context.
So it’s the idea of ingredients, and not just programming, but how we deal with people as changing organisms of thought and spirituality, because we are universally connected.
Q: Do you have a hobby beyond music and food that most people may not know about?
Masur: (long, thoughtful pause)
Q: It’s OK if music is everything.
Masur: No, far from it. For me, music is not God, but is one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given to get a glimpse of what heaven must be like. And the beauty is that we are allowed to partake in that desire to build something beautiful and unifying with it. So for me, music is one arena in which we can do that. This is why I don’t like music to be detached from community or reality, but the other way around. It should make sense to every single person coming in touch with it, and have something to say about life. My goal is to find as many ways as possible to relate to people.
I wanted to become a professional table-tennis player when I grew up. I was state champion when I grew up in Leipzig, with my team. Luckily my parents discouraged me from going to the table-tennis academy. (laughs)
Q: Did they see that as a rebellion at the time? Not explicitly embracing music?
Masur: I mean, I was totally serious but of course they knew better, which is good. But I loved athletics. When you grow up in East Germany…Leipzig has one of the most famous sports academies in the world. Well now it kind of went under because of all the doping cases, which of course, many of them didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs, but when you have a couple that come out of that program, everyone else is discredited. You had every sport that people would study. So I went there for judo and martial arts, and of course played ping-pong in another club. I was serious in choir at the Gewandhaus Children’s Chorus, which was one of my most important influences. Back then it felt like a hobby, but I took it as serious as sports as a form of expression. And I thought that’s just what everyone did. They sing or they play an instrument well and then they do sports. That’s what Leipzig kids grew up with. Now [I’m] also trying to support and figure out what our kids like, and going along with them. When we were looking for a home in Milwaukee, I would drive up with our realtor and say, “Oh, this house is a problem. It doesn’t have a basketball hoop.”
Q: (laughs) It’s very important!
Masur: And after a month she realized I wasn’t kidding. I played basketball in my high school team. I still shoot hoops every single day at Tanglewood.
Q: Did you follow the Bucks in their playoff season?
Masur: Yes. I watched the MVP award ceremony and all that. So of course I’m very happy and maybe we’ll get Giannis to do Peter and the Wolf or something.
Q: (laughs) I like it.
Masur: I was there when Kobe Bryant premiered, with John Williams, his basketball poem that John Williams set to music, that he got an Academy Award for. I met Kobe. I said, “Hey, this is great, what you’re doing.” He said, “Oh, you know, I never thought I’d be doing this!” It was just awesome.
I came here [to America] when I was in eighth grade. That was the height of Michael Jordan and the Bulls. And my friends and I…. We’d watch Michael Jordan and shoot hoops outside. So I grew up with athletics in East Germany, and that’s still something important. I find there’s something about athletics and dance as well. I consider listening to other kinds of music a hobby too, because it’s not for work.
Q: What was the last concert you attended as an audience member?
Masur: The last concert I attended was at Tanglewood, because I was there last week. Tom Adès conducted a program that incorporated Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, which is wonderful to hear in Tanglewood because of the location in Massachusetts. So that’s one of the last programs I will hear in my outgoing position as associate conductor of the Boston Symphony. And the previous week was my last concert to conduct the orchestra. So that was a perfect ending.
Q: Having conducted orchestras in both Europe and the United States, what would you say is the biggest difference?
Masur: You can tell in Europe there’s a high level of music knowledge, just culturally speaking in terms of the schooling. In American arenas or festivals, at Tanglewood, or Chelsea, we might have audiences who are novices, people who have never been to symphony concerts. They might not know where to clap but that’s perfectly fine! We want that. In Europe, there’s a sense of, yeah, this is something we celebrate just as much as going to the museum of contemporary art. I would say in Europe there’s also a larger range of age groups, which we’re trying to change here as well.
Q: Tell me about your experience with the development and construction of Milwaukee’s new Symphony hall.
Masur: Oh my goodness, it’s just so exciting. Today was the wall move, and I saw orchestra members come because they’ve been waiting for this moment. To see that in people’s eyes and hear them talk about it is extraordinary, and I want to partake in that. We can take that energy into the programming, into the ways that we remind everyone in Milwaukee that this is a new chapter in the city and an access point for them. We’ll be able to spread the love of music through the city in many different ways.
Q: I was excited earlier to hear that you’re interested in living composers. Who are some of your favorites?
Masur: I have many favorites. The musical languages of contemporary composers are so vast. My conducting responsibility is finding those works that speak to me in a way that I find I can most be of service for this composer or this artist, where I can bring a level of understanding of this sound world and what this composer is trying to do.
Q: Just as a bookend, then, are there two or three living composers you love listening to, or for score study…
Masur: Alright, so we are starting out with Detlev Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie [on the opening concert] for a good reason… To have a connection with someone who has the [German] heritage. Bringing in a composer who is not afraid to look back, and then making it still a very personal, original statement. A reflection of something that is honored in terms of the line. His work was introduced to me early on when he wrote the arrangements of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs for orchestra and bass-baritone, which are extraordinary. That’s one side.
The other side of the spectrum is the composer we end the season with, Helen Grime. She is one of those extraordinary composers of the younger generation. She’s already had big commissions all around the world. She has a language which is original, it’s sincere. Like the great composers of the past, it feels like it’s speaking deeply to all of us. So those two have quite a range. I also recently premiered Christopher Cerrone’s concerto for Third Coast Percussion, which is an entirely different direction again. Golijov is of course established, fantastic. Saariaho is one of the pioneers. One of the greats who just passed away is Dutilleux, who I got to meet. Schnittke’s on the program for this season, who’s one of my favorites.
Q: You had a rich musical development, studying voice and trumpet, your conducting training, and spending time around your father Kurt Masur as he conducted on the world stage. Even among all that music training, was there a turning point where you said “This is it”?
Masur: There were two. First was the Boston University/Tanglewood Institute which I attended as a high schooler, as a composer. I was a composer then. And the sheer amount of impressions that I am still processing today, even as I am faculty there. That was one turning point. Being surrounded by people in high school who were now seriously thinking about going into music. The next summer I heard the 50th anniversary performance of Peter Grimes with Ozawa conducting. That, to me, was incredible – that music, and that power. It still hits me today.
The other one is when I was studying voice in Berlin. My wife and I were in Berlin at the time. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. At the time I was set on just finishing my studies, and becoming an oratorio elite singer. That was my passion. I really wanted to do that. At the same time, I had gotten the conducting bug but couldn’t imagine a life there. But then a window opened up. My father said he was in Paris with the National Orchestre. He said, “Ken, our assistants are busy for the beginning of the season. Why don’t you come?” I kind of dismissed it. I wasn’t sure I should be there as the son of the conductor, you know. And my wife simply said, “Ken, you don’t know how long you’re going to have your dad. What a wonderful opportunity.” And that was for me an amazing thing, being in the world of this extraordinary orchestra, following my father and hearing his stories about that age. That led to my first professional engagements as a symphony orchestra conductor.
I do teach now. And I ask them: “What is your interest? What is the reason you want to be a conductor?” Because depending on their world view, I might steer them in a direction of, “why don’t you find your influence here?” To find opportunities where you can have those impressions and not be drowned by the cynicism that destroys our artistry. And getting the opportunity to become a good musician. Which not all conductors, I’m finding, have. They’re not always told, “First, be a good musician so you can coax the best out of an ensemble.”
Ken-David Masur will lead the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the season’s opening program at the Marcus Center on September 13-14 at 8:00 pm and September 15 at 2:30 pm.