Kurt Masur is 83 years old. He has always been a big bear of a man — “Elephant” was his nickname and his totem animal, though there was more of the bulldog than the elephant in the tenacious set of his jaw, the uncompromising eyes. Walking out to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, he stepped carefully, with a measured tread that betokened a slight unsteadiness. His solidity has yielded to thinness, so that when he now conducts, his habit of using his whole body, moving with the music, makes him seem to sway like a sapling in a strong wind.
Don’t be fooled. Conductors who are really frail conduct sitting down. Masur stayed on his feet in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for nearly two solid hours of strong German music: Mendelssohn, Bruch and Brahms. The NSO rose to meet him with so much goodwill that its playing took on a veritable Central European accent. Mendelssohn’s “Ruy Blas” Overture, which the orchestra hasn’t played for more than 65 years, sounded uncharacteristically warm and lighthearted and robust: not earthshaking music, but very likable music that became worthwhile in this account of it. Much is made of artists’ late styles; Masur’s late style may simply be the ability to let a moment, or a concert, be enjoyed.
Contributing to that enjoyment considerably was Sarah Chang, now 30, performing the piece — Bruch’s first, and by far best-known, violin concerto — that she played for her Juilliard audition when she was 6 years old. The truism about child prodigies is that they tend to fade from view as they get older: Chang, who made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 9, is one of a whole generation of musicians — Midori, Joshua Bell, Evgeny Kissin — who has given that truism the lie. She certainly brought a wonderful flair to the Bruch from the very first bars. Often described as a conversation between soloist and orchestra, these opening lines revealed a soloist who actually had something to say. She didn’t try to make a case for the piece as being anything greater than it is, but she brought out all of its lovable singing qualities while doing it the honor of taking it seriously, limning it in amber tones, only giving way a little bit to a manic impulse at the very end. Masur, who has been playing with Chang for years (he’s been called her “musical godfather”), and the orchestra did a beautiful job of accompanying her, particularly in the way the other instruments kept chiming in seamlessly in the second movement.
The last time the NSO played Brahms’s First Symphony was in a special concert arranged as a kind of audition or getting-to-know-you session in 2008 with the conductor who ultimately became the orchestra’s next music director, Christoph Eschenbach, and you could feel the electricity crackling. Masur is a very different kind of conductor. Where Eschenbach’s heart tends to be on his sleeve, Masur’s is well contained within his silvery Nehru blouse. Masur is not a conductor of big or graphic gestures: He keeps his hands close to and in front of his body, and lets the music talk. Rather than telegraphing excitement, he allows it to grow out of a kind of intimacy. The palpable earnestness of this symphony seemed, initially, to present a contrast to the first half of the evening; there were moments in the first movement that even verged on sluggishness. But the music kept blossoming, without too much fuss on the conductor’s part, as if he expected it and the players to keep on responding to the intentions in his spare gestures. Masur and the NSO — points to the oboes and the trombones — ended up presenting a subdued elegance that had its own quiet authority, and quiet poignance.