Classical Notes | David Weininger

Ken-David Masur, picking up the baton

Ken-David Masur leading the BSO in 2015.
Stu Rosner/file
Ken-David Masur leading the BSO in 2015.

For a long time, Ken-David Masur didn’t think he wanted to be a conductor. Ken-David is the son of Kurt Masur, one of the great conductors of the second half of the 20th century. And although the younger Masur grew up in a family where “everyone is a musician,” he sometimes found the example his father had set somewhat imposing, and so had decided that music would remain an avocation.

One day at Columbia University, where he was studying East Asian languages and French and German literature as an undergraduate, a fellow student asked Masur if he would conduct an upcoming production of Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas.” He demurred, for the reason that he’d never conducted anything and didn’t know how. His colleague was persistent, though, and eventually Masur found himself leading the first rehearsal.

“And I had so much fun,” he remembered during a recent phone interview from Newton, where he lives with his wife and three young children. “I didn’t expect it to be that different from making music in other ways. But it was incredible to explore the music [that way].” His father, who was then music director of the New York Philharmonic, casually asked if he could stop by one of the rehearsals. “And afterwards he said, very quietly, ‘You know, what you’re doing is really good.’ ”


The elder Masur’s quiet, undemonstrative encouragement was just what his son needed. “I was able to discover music as a passion, for myself. I thought, I want to do something like this and get this feeling back whenever I could.”

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Masur’s decision to pursue conducting came, by today’s standards, relatively late in life: He did not hold a full-time assistant conductor position until he was 29. Perhaps, though, that accounts for the quiet self-confidence he radiates on the podium, something BSO and Tanglewood audiences have had ample opportunities to appreciate. He was a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2011 and 2012 and was named assistant conductor of the orchestra in 2014. Now 40, he holds the title of associate conductor, a recognition of the breadth of his BSO tenure.

His next BSO undertaking, which begins on Nov. 19, is perhaps his most ambitious. It brings together two sets of incidental music written to accompany plays: Beethoven’s “Egmont” and Grieg’s “Peer Gynt.” Certain excerpts from both works are popular — the “Egmont” overture, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from “Peer Gynt” — but chances to hear them in their totality are rare.

In the case of “Peer Gynt,” most BSO performances have been drawn from the two suites Grieg created from the score. Because a complete performance of Ibsen's play and Grieg’s music would last about five hours, choices always need to be made about what to include and what to omit, dramatically and musically. Bill Barclay, the stage director for the BSO’s performance — which will include the orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, soprano Camilla Tilling, and a cast of actors — wrote in an e-mail that he had written a new text, based on the play, that “tells the whole arc of the story while featuring as much music in it as possible.” The intention is “to get through the famous bits of the play and the score, and to provide the audience with a dramatic context for music that they know and love.”

It was at Tanglewood that Ken-David made his BSO debut in 2012, in an unusual double-bill with his father: The younger Masur led the first half of an all-Mozart program, including the serenade “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and the C-minor Piano Concerto, and the elder took over after intermission for the “Linz” Symphony. It was, perhaps, all too easy to see the concert as a father trying to boost his son’s career fortunes.


The real explanation, though, was quite different. The elder Masur was battling Parkinson’s disease and had recently suffered a fall at a concert in Paris, making conducting full-length programs difficult. Sharing the podium, which they’d already done elsewhere, was a way of easing the demands on his increasingly frail parent.

“I knew my father may not be around much longer, when we found out about his Parkinson’s,” said Masur. “So my goal was simply to spend as much time with him as possible. These things just came about out of love.”

Four years later, Masur stepped in at short notice to replace an ailing Christoph von Dohnanyi in a Tanglewood concert that included Tchaikovsky’s wrenching “Pathétique” Symphony. Kurt Masur had died the previous December, at the age of 88. Ken-David remembered his father telling him that in the Tchaikovsky symphony, “people always wanted [him] to be some other conductor. And he would say, ‘I’m sorry, I can only be me.’

“But this is what this orchestra allows you to do: to be what you see in the piece,” he said of the BSO. “And what you discover there, [not] what other conductors do, or what you’ve heard on recordings. How do you feel? How do you sense this piece at this stage of life?”


At Symphony Hall, Oct. 19-24. Tickets $25-145. 888-266-1200

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.