MSO’s Pedigreed New Music Director Knows a Thing or Two About Stepping Into Big Shoes

After completing an extensive international search, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has found its next music director, the German-born wunderkind Ken-David Masur.

When Ken-David Masur first guest-conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in May 2018, he didn’t think he was a candidate for its vacant music director position – he thought one had already been chosen.

So he wasn’t nervous.

“I did not come in with any thoughts that would distract me,” says Masur, 41. “I had fun.”

So did the orchestra and chorus, which Masur (pronounced “mah-ZOOR”) led through a challenging international program.

“When he walked in to conduct, we said to ourselves, ‘Who is this guy?’ as we did with most of the candidates,” recalls Katherine Young Steele, principal oboe. “Then Ken-David wowed everybody. He has this tremendous background, yet he is so genuine and normal and down-to-earth.”

She adds, “He didn’t treat us like a ‘Midwestern’ orchestra. He treated us like the fine ensemble we are, not a stepping stone to a bigger orchestra.”

Jessica Wirth, an alto with the chorus, noted the degree of difficulty with one piece in particular, by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. “‘Flos Campi’ is hard, and we did it well under Masur,” she says. “I felt much more secure doing it this time than I had before.”

Based in part on that positive interaction, Masur was invited to return in the fall. Callback invitations were typical for front-running candidates during the 36-month search to replace Edo de Waart. He had been music director for eight seasons before he retired at the end of 2016-17.

Masur with Frank Almond and other members of the MSO. Photo by Jonathan Kirn.

Last September, Masur returned to conduct the season opener: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, with soloist Boris Giltburg, and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. The latter is often called a “warhorse,” meaning a composition that is overly familiar to audiences and played in a hackneyed way.

Masur says of his return, “I had felt such warmth coming from the players and the search committee. But I wanted to make sure the feeling was mutual.”

The feeling was, indeed, mutual. And the performance lifted the piece out of the “warhorse” category. “He was successful in livening things up, in getting a good product out of us,” says Steele. “And I felt the chemistry even more strongly this time.”

Longtime symphony-goer Norman Lasca was at that concert. “Masur drew out a fresh interpretation of the Brahms,” says Lasca, a retired geosciences professor from UWM. “It sparkled rather than drudging along. Something different brought it alive.”

To find a new music director, the search committee (composed of players, board members and the MSO president and executive director, Mark Niehaus) began by creating a job description with three basic criteria: someone who is an excellent artist and conductor who will advance the orchestra musically; someone who can reach out to the community, attracting new patrons; and someone with a great temperament.

This was the profile of the committee’s “ideal candidate,” even if such a person doesn’t exist. Turns out, he does.

“There are plenty of fine conductors out there,” says Doug Hagerman, former MSO board chair who led the search committee, “but it wasn’t until we zeroed in on Ken-David that we felt we had someone who satisfied all the dimensions we were looking for.”

On Nov. 12, the MSO named Masur the seventh music director for the MSO – the committee’s unanimous choice.

Masur will be coming to Milwaukee from his current position as associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Munich Symphony. He has conducted symphonies and orchestras around the world, from Russia to Switzerland to Chicago to Japan to Israel.

Masur and his wife, pianist Melinda Lee Masur, also are co-founders and artistic directors of the Chelsea Music Festival in Manhattan, an annual, eight- or nine-day exhibition of music, art and cuisine that wrapped up its ninth season last June.

Masur amidst the renovation of the Warner Grand Theatre. Photo by Sara Stathas.

The new conductor arrives to shape the MSO ahead of a pivotal moment: the grand opening of the Milwaukee Symphony Center in fall 2020. The project is an $89 million renovation of the Warner Grand Theatre, 212 W. Wisconsin Ave., which was built in 1930 as an elegant movie and vaudeville venue with a French Renaissance interior and Art Deco exterior and lobby. It closed in 1995 and has since deteriorated due to disuse.

Currently, the orchestra shares Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts with several other arts groups, which limits its scheduling options. Having complete control of its venue will allow the MSO to book top-shelf soloists, even five years into the future, and offer more weeks of performances. The hall also is expected to create new sources of revenue, such as concessions and facility rental fees.

Kurt Masur enjoying a fun moment at home with wife Tomoko and son Ken-David on his lap in 1985
Kurt and Tomoko Masur with Ken-David and coaching him at the piano in 1985
Masur brings an impressive pedigree to lead the orchestra in its new home. He is the son of Kurt Masur, conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and music director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s. The elder Masur has been described as the greatest conductor of his generation. Ken-David’s mother is Japanese soprano and violist Tomoko Sakurai.

After his childhood in Leipzig, Masur’s family moved to New York when Ken-David was in his teens. The family home in Westchester County often hosted world-renowned classical musicians as well as jazz musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson.

“Ken-David has been around the greatest musicians in the world his whole life,” the MSO’s Niehaus says. “That has to do something positive to your ears. He has very high artistic standards, which works well for us, because we do, too.”

Kurt with Ken-David in Leipzig on the stage of the Messehalle in 1978

A classically trained vocalist – he has also played the violin and trumpet – Masur attended the Leipzig Conservatory, Detmold Academy and the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin, all in Germany. At Columbia University in New York City, he was first music director of the student-run Bach Society Orchestra and Chorus. After graduation in 2002, he worked as a choir conductor and gradually moved into orchestral conducting.

The younger Masur did not at first aspire to be a conductor, because he saw firsthand through his father how demanding the old East German system was. It required a conductor to not only make music but be an administrator, hiring everyone from top violinist to janitor. Still, the younger Masur helped his father prepare for concerts, which whetted his appetite for conducting. Kurt Masur died in 2015 at the age of 88 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Ken-David says he still feels his father’s spirit during concerts.

Melinda Masur, meanwhile, has performed as a pianist around the world and is a faculty member of the Boston University School of Music. “Melinda is amazing,” Niehaus says. “They’re a package deal for sure.”

Masur will be succeeding de Waart, an internationally renowned conductor whose respect and connections in the musical world enabled him to draw prominent soloists to Milwaukee. De Waart is credited with taking a solid orchestra and making it into an internationally respected one.

“We were very lucky to have Edo as musical director,” Niehaus says. “He built an incredible orchestra – he hired 40 percent of the current musicians – because he is a brilliant judge of talent.”

“Ken’s approach is, ‘We’re all in this together, let’s see what we can do.’ That fits our orchestra.”


When Masur’s appointment was announced, de Waart called his successor to congratulate him on his appointment and to send fond wishes. “We had met before, over a wonderful dinner,” Masur recalls. “It is a privilege for me to continue what Edo has done beautifully in the last few years.”

Masur, having already followed in his famous father’s footsteps, lifts an ironic eyebrow at the idea of again following a tough act. “I would be one of the best people to understand what ‘big shoes to fill’ means,” he says. “I’ve been confronted with it all my life.”

When Ken-David began conducting, his father told him to just do the best he could and not try to be someone else. “For me, it’s less about the shoes to fill,” Masur says, “it’s about how we can celebrate life. I believe music is not simply entertainment – it’s a way we can understand more about ourselves.”

As this was published, Masur was still working on the planning that will translate that ethos to the programming for the MSO’s next season. He will conduct eight weeks of programs in 2019-20 and 13 weeks the following season. 

Audiences can expect premieres of new works by composers both young and established. Informed by the experience as a vocalist early in his career, Masur is known for promoting the large symphonic vocal repertoire. It is also likely that the MSO will continue the popular movie series, which this year includes film-and-score performances of The Empire Strikes Back May 31-June 2.

In addition, the next few seasons include the MSO’s 60th season and Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. Creative programming will likely mark these milestones.

Masur says his overall goal will be to create new entry points of all levels to bring people of different ages, backgrounds and imaginations into the hall – and get them to engage with one another through music. He plans to be involved in every MSO series: classical, pops, outreach and education. “I want the music to be accessible to everybody,” he says.

This is no small undertaking. The MSO currently performs at some 47 venues across Wisconsin. Its outreach programs include the Arts in Community Education (ACE) program, youth and teen concerts and a family series, which together reach 40,000 children and their families a year; Meet the Music preconcert talks; Friday evening post-concert talkbacks; and pop-up concerts to reach nontraditional audiences. New “entry points” for Masur might include galleries, museums and bars. “Sometimes people only come in when there is an open bar,” he says with a smile.

Melinda and Ken-David Masur at the closing night of the 2017 Chelsea Music Festival. Photo courtesy of the festival.

He plans to create mutually beneficial relationships with other arts organizations. Niehaus also believes it’s possible that Ken-David and Melinda Masur will look to establish something similar to the Chelsea Music Festival here in Milwaukee.

To facilitate all of this, Masur’s style will definitely be collaborative. Adjectives used by players and audiences to describe him include warm, approachable and grounded.

This is a far cry from old-style conductors who were, essentially, dictators. Legends abound about their mercurial temperaments and insistence on perfection: breaking batons when angry, yelling at musicians and even summarily firing players for joking during rehearsals.

“The tyrant era has been over for quite a while,” says Niehaus. “It’s refreshing. Ken’s approach is, ‘We’re all in this together, let’s see what we can do.’ That fits our orchestra.”

Adds oboist Steele, “Ken-David was one of the few candidates who seemed to understand what the Milwaukee community is about and what is needed here.”

And at the conductor’s podium, Masur’s style is profoundly physical: sweeping arm movements, leaning over to certain orchestra sections to coax out sounds, jumping on the podium with enthusiasm. Principal timpani Dean Borghesani says Masur knows how to communicate musical expressions in the flow of the music, rather than having to stop and tell players what he meant by a certain visual cue. “Ken-David has beautiful hands,” he says. “Very few can tell you what they need just through the motion of their hands.”

Artistic excellence? Check. Commitment to community involvement? Check. A likable person? Check. But the icing on the cake with Masur’s appointment is that the maestro, Melinda and their three children, ages 10, 8 and 6, will relocate from Boston to Milwaukee sometime this year. Observers say having an on-site music director – the “soul of the orchestra,” as Niehaus says – is important to its ongoing success. (De Waart lived in the Madison area during his MSO tenure.) “It is critical that he will be with us here, participating in the artistic life of the city,” says Hagerman, the search committee leader.

Adds Niehaus, “Ken-David is who you want onstage conducting Mahler. And the next day, what could be better than running into him at Sendik’s and talking about the previous night’s concert?”

The family is currently considering several neighborhoods and a number of schools. Because they speak German at home in addition to English, they toured Milwaukee Public Schools’ German Immersion School (among other schools). Their tour guide was a sixth-grader who conducted the tour entirely in German and hopes to study in Germany someday. “Incredible!” Masur says. “What a wonderful introduction to the community.”

To stay in shape – a requisite with his physical conducting style – Masur enjoys jogging, playing pingpong and shooting hoops with his kids. And walking. “When I was in Milwaukee for that week in September, I walked probably 20 miles, from my Downtown hotel to Shorewood and back,” he says. “I loved seeing all the neighborhoods, and looking at the lake. It gave me a good feel for the city.”

Milwaukeeans can’t help but welcome our newest orchestra conductor.

“One of the things I love about Ken-David is that he will be equally effective with our biggest donor and with a child who is hearing the orchestra for the first time,” says Hagerman. “His style works with everyone.”

“Maestro Masur” appears in the February 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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