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One of the New York Philharmonic's longest-serving music directors, Kurt Masur, dies at age 88
Kurt Masur, music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducts during his final concert at Avery Fischer Hall in New York in this July 18, 2002, fiel photo. Kurt Masur, one of the greatest world leaders orchestra, died on December 19, 2015 at the age of 88 years, announced in a message the president of the New York Philharmonic, Matthew Vanbesien. AFP PHOTO/Doug KANTER/FILES.

By: Shaun Tandon

NEW YORK (AFP).- Kurt Masur, the conductor who seized on music's power to ease Germany's reunification and comfort New York after September 11, died Saturday. He was 88.

The New York Philharmonic announced the death of Masur, one of its longest-serving music directors who led the orchestra from 1991 to 2002 and was credited with enhancing its global reputation.

A German born in what is today Poland, Masur was an unlikely choice to lead one of the New World's pre-eminent orchestras as he had spent his career -- both musically and politically -- within the confines of communist East Germany and was closely focused on the classical canon.

But Masur won wide praise for polishing the musical bona fides of the New York Philharmonic and raising its profile with 17 tours around the world including a first trip to mainland China, now key to the orchestra's overseas activities.

"Masur's years at the New York Philharmonic represent one of its golden eras, in which music-making was infused with commitment and devotion -- with the belief in the power of music to bring humanity closer together," Alan Gilbert, the outgoing music director, said in a statement.

"The ethical and moral dimensions that he brought to his conducting are still palpable in the musicians' playing, and I, along with the Philharmonic's audiences, have much to thank him for," he said.

'A great humanist'
Masur faced the currents of history when he was conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and demonstrations were building across East Germany.

An accoladed East German who had been friendly with authorities despite his Christian faith, Masur went on the radio in October 1989 and appealed for calm.

The troops heeded the call and did not open fire. Masur was able to lead a performance without bloodshed, helping set the graceful, non-violent tone of German reunification with the Berlin Wall falling weeks later.

"We have lost a great conductor and extraordinary man," German President Joachim Gauck said in a statement. 

"Many people will never forget how he campaigned in the autumn of 1989 for structural change in the German Democratic Republic, for people's freedom and for democracy," said Gauck, himself a former pastor and anti-communist activist in the east.

Masur's former orchestra in Leipzig changed its Internet home page to a picture of the conductor.

"Leipzig without the world citizen Kurt Masur is barely imaginable," Mayor Burkhard Jung said.

"We have lost a musical genius, a fascinating conductor of top world rank, and a great humanist," he said.

Yet after East German leader Erich Honecker stepped down, Masur wrote a letter to thank him for his support to the orchestra, drawing criticism from regime opponents.

Years later, Masur described the mood as the Iron Curtain fell as "Heaven on Earth" but was circumspect when asked about the lasting impact.

"The spirit of those days has pretty much been exhausted, and things haven't turned out well for everyone," he told Der Spiegel in 2010.

"In fact, for many people, reunification has meant more suffering than gain. And many are quite desperate."

Mourning 9/11
Masur was again hailed for mastering the moment after the September 11, 2001 attacks scarred New York. He led the Philharmonic in Brahms' "German Requiem" in a nationally televised memorial service.

The conductor requested that the audience refrain from applause, turning the concert into a moment for contemplation.

Annie Bergen, a host on New York's classical music radio station WQXR, later said of the "German Requiem" performance that "the effect was so profound it was as if it had been composed that day."

Masur initially took the baton at the New York Philharmonic in 1990 to fill in for Leonard Bernstein, one of his most famous predecessors as music director, who died suddenly as he prepared to conduct Mendelssohn's "Elijah."

Despite his musical background as a classical pianist and conductor, Masur initiated the Philharmonic's collaboration with jazz great Wynton Marsalis who heads the Jazz at Lincoln Center program a short walk from the orchestra's hall.

Yet Masur's strict style did not always win him friends among musicians and administration, and he later said that his departure from the New York Philharmonic was not voluntary.

He was given the title of music director emeritus and took two prominent positions in the European classical world -- music director of the Orchestre National de France and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Masur kept conducting late in life but suffered Parkinson's disease. 

© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse

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