If Ken-David Masur’s surname seems familiar, there’s a reason. Kurt Masur, his father, boosted the international reputation of Germany’s Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra as kapellmeister from 1970 through 1996 and served for 11 years as music director of the New York Philharmonic.
Now 41, the younger Masur is building a substantial career of his own after following an unconventional career path. He was named assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony in 2014 and now holds the position of associate conductor. In that role, he will lead the orchestra later this summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., and then conduct a set of subscription concerts in October in the orchestra’s home hall. In addition, he serves as principal guest conductor of the Munich Symphony and has appearances next season with such notable ensembles as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and National Philharmonic of Russia.
Masur will make both his Ravinia and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts this summer, when he leads two performances of the festival’s annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular. “Aside from my being excited to come to Ravinia for the first time, the opportunity to conduct the Chicago Symphony is tremendous,” he said. “I’ve heard them many times live in the past years.”
Except for the 1812 Overture, an annual tradition at these concerts, each evening will feature different works by the famed Russian composer, including the Piano Concerto No. 1 with Inon Barnatan on July 21 and the Violin Concerto with Miriam Fried on July 22. The latter concert marks the 25th anniversary of Fried’s appointment as director of the piano and strings program at the Steans Music Institute, Ravinia’s educational arm. “I’m just very honored,” Masur said, “and I feel thrilled to be able to do that with them and with her together.”
Despite seemingly having conducting in his blood, Masur did not attend a music conservatory and he did not pursue conducting in college. In fact, he didn’t major in music at all, opting to study East Asian languages and French and German literature. Although in his youth, he had studied composition as well as violin and trumpet and had been a member of the Gewandhaus Children’s Chorus, he didn’t think he wanted to be a professional musician. “I loved music, but I thought maybe that wasn’t for me,” he said. “So I set out going to Columbia University and searching for subjects that I related to, that were maybe more interesting than music.” He followed those last words with a laugh, knowing how his life has turned out.
Then Masur was approached by a fellow student about leading a production of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, and he soon became music director of the Columbia Musical Theatre Society. He later decided he wanted to bring to Columbia some of J.S. Bach’s music, long a staple of his hometown of Leipzig; he soon became the founding music director of the school’s Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra. “That was really where I felt that I discovered music for myself, because even though I grew up singing and performing Bach and going to concerts and collaborating with the St. Thomas Choir, my father, except maybe the Passions, had not done that repertoire,” he said. “It was the exploration of Bach and Baroque music that fascinated me and gave me this curiosity to delve into it more seriously.”
After graduating from Columbia in 2002, still not sure he wanted to pursue music as a career, he nonetheless remained very involved with it. Wanting to reconnect with his German roots, he returned to his homeland to study voice with celebrated bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff. “I decided to combine my joy and excitement and curiosity for German literature with that of music through vocal studies,” he said.
At that point, he began working in the choral world, among other things, preparing the French Radio Choir for performances with the Orchestre National de France led by his father, who was music director from 2002 through 2008. Repertoire included Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. “That was my big detour way of eventually going into conducting,” Masur said. His first full-time conducting position came in 2007 when he was named resident conductor of the San Antonio Symphony.
In 2011-12, he was a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, one of the classical world’s most important training programs. During those years, he also participated in many master classes and took advantage of his father’s extensive knowledge; the two of them would sit down and analyze dozens of scores together.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a family that loves music, that enjoys it as something is life-giving,” he said. “Being immersed and growing up in Leipzig and being surrounded by music everywhere, it’s something that’s very natural. Later on, when I came to the States together with my father, I grew up with the sounds of New York and the New York Philharmonic. I’m deeply grateful for this kind of heritage.”
Chicagoans will have another chance to see Masur when he returns in May to lead the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the CSO’s training ensemble. The program, part of the orchestra’s season-long centennial celebration, will include a world premiere by Christopher Cerrone, a 2014 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music. The concert will feature Third Coast Percussion as soloists with the orchestra. “I’m quite excited about this,” Masur said. “In fact, I just had lunch with a few Civic [Orchestra] members who are out at Tanglewood.”
TOP: Ken-David Masur. | Photo: Beth Ross Buckley/Colbert Artists Management