Part of my top prize at the International ARD Competition in 1990 was my Japanese debut in April 1991. I got to play a recital at Suntory Hall and the Dvorak Concerto with an orchestra in Tokyo which probably doesn’t even exist anymore (Shinsei Symphony). During my 10-day stay I had the unique chance to join a private celebration at the house of Kurt Masur’s in-laws. The director of the Goethe-Institut had invited me along, and after having met the Maestro already officially but very briefly at the price-ceremony of the other competition, I had won in 1990, the German Music Council Competition in Bonn, this time I had the rare opportunity to actually get to know this man, who had played such a crucial role in the peaceful transition not even two years earlier which resulted into the German re-unification.
While he seemed rather distant and almost arrogant in Bonn, standing tall next to the re-unification chancellor Helmut Kohl, in Tokyo I was overwhelmed by his warmth and kindness – I met the real “Mensch” Kurt Masur in the circle of his family, not the public figure. Forgive my bad memory, I don’t recall every detail of that for me very meaningful evening. What I remember very vividly was our very first musical collaboration: after having played a bit of Bachsuite on the cello, I somehow ended up at the piano (back then I still felt like half pianist, half cellist), accompanying Kurt Masur with the Erlkönig by Franz Schubert which I had often played with my mother, so I knew it by heart.
Two years later, after my third and last competition, the Leonard-Rose-Competition in Maryland (near Washington DC), I invited him, now chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and his lovely wife Tomoko to my recital debut at Alice-Tully-Hall in New York. As I had dislocated the middle-finger of my left hand at a bike accident three weeks prior to this I managed to play the concert only after couple of healing sessions with an old Japanese lady and a big bandage around the blue finger. No idea how I played, but somehow my on-stage suffering did not turn my new-found friends away. When I moved to New York not even a year later, my first introduction to my now favorite breakfast meal, bagel with creamcheese, smoked salmon, onions, tomatoes and capers, happened in the Westchester home of the Masurs; Tomoko had prepared it, as I remember many more meals in their house accompanied by very inspiring conversations about music, life, politics and also education. I saw their teenaged boy Ken slowly grow into a man, totally unimpressed by the fame of his father, and I realized these parents must have done something very right.
The love I felt between this couple, to see this adored and even sometimes feared Maestro turn into a loving father and husband when he entered his home, with small insecurities and an adorable shyness about him, touched and inspired me deeply. Tomoko, herself a singer and former violinist, had dedicated herself entirely to the family, helping this wonderful musician-husband of hers to concentrate on bringing his art to one of the most exciting cities in the world, New York. But when she fell ill one day, I remember it clearly, nothing life threatening, Kurt cancelled two or three weeks worth of concerts to be there for her, as she had been always there for him. If I didn’t know it before, this taught me a lot about priorities, and since I admired the Masurs very much I asked him after the birth of my son János end of January 1999, if he would give me the honour to become his godfather. With the remark that he might not be able to play soccer with him he agreed, came to the baptism and hung out at our pizza-party in our little New York apartment.
Now, almost fourteen years later, I had long ago moved back to my hometown Berlin, my boy is an almost grown man and Kurt Masur just celebrated his 85th birthday. We didn’t work together that often, once in Leipzig with “his” old Gewandhausorchestra Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, another time with “his” old Radio France Orchestra the Dvorak Concerto and this past Saturday with “his” old London Philharmonic; it became the for me most moving Schumann Concerto performance I have ever been involved in. Already minutes before our first rehearsal at Henry Wood Hall, where I have done quite a few of my recordings, he told me about his recording with Natalia Gutman who sat at some point in a corner, crying for her lost husband Oleg Kagan who had died far too young, playing the opening of this concerto with so much sorrow that his eyes were watering by the sheer memory of it.
And seeing him, this tall, strong man, being seemingly humiliated by this awful Parkinson disease while his heart and musicianship (and his wife Tomoko!) are fighting an admirable fight, not giving up and not letting it get the upper hand – this all made me remember my brave mother who lost ther battle against this awful ALS known in the US as Lou-Gehrig-disease, feeling the pain all over again while being grateful to be able to get inspired by such profound music making by Kurt Masur and the orchestra which played so beautifully for him. This evening wasn’t about notes, it wasn’t about perfection, it was entirely about humanity, the immortality of souls and the finity of life. What better piece than the introvert Schumann concerto to portray all this. Oh, I have no idea, if any of my feelings transported into a good performance – often it can be the opposite effect; if you feel too much you might not have the needed distance to make sure that the feelings actually translate into good music, but at least for me it was a unique and very emotional experience.
And to being able to perform under Maestro at the last stand of the cello section Beethoven’s glorious 7th Symphony – I will never forget; before and after the performance he was frail and didn’t look well, but while conducting he was his old self, actually as I had never seen him before, glowing of love for music and humility for life, a true example of a great man.