Conductor Kurt Sanderling Dies At 98

Conductor Kurt Sanderling was a friend of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and a champion of his music.

hide captionConductor Kurt Sanderling was a friend of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and a champion of his music.

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Conductor Kurt Sanderling, who passed away Saturday, just one day short of his 99th birthday, retired from his craft in 2002, 70 years after his first ascent to the podium.

Sanderling was an artist whose lifespan encompassed a dizzying array of historical and musical turns. Geopolitics meant that he never became as widely known in his prime as he might have been.

Born in1912 in what was then East Prussia and now Poland, Sanderling's early studies led to a position as a repetiteur at the Berlin State Opera in the early 1930s until he was dismissed as a "non-Aryan." Although most of his European Jewish musical counterparts fled westward, Sanderling went east, into the Soviet Union, in 1936.

He remained behind the Iron Curtain for decades. In 1941, he began a long tenure as deputy conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, where he worked with Evgeny Mravinsky but also made his own tours and recordings. Nearly as soon as he commenced work there, however, the Germans invaded, and Stalin sent the Leningrad orchestra to Siberia, asserting that it was a protective measure.

In Novosibirsk, Sanderling continued his risky championing of the music of Shostakovich — a longtime friend and colleague, and one of the composers with whom Sanderling is most closely associated. (There is an interesting interview with the conductor about Shostakovich from the mid-1990s available online.)

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Watch Sanderling conduct a section of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6

In 1960, Sanderling moved back to Berlin — but still on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall — in order to become music director of the recently founded Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the Communist answer to the Berlin Philharmonic. And it was not until the last twenty years of his active career that most Western European and American audiences had a chance to experience what pianist Mitsuko Uchida enthused about after a 1980 recording session of Beethoven she attended with Sanderling and the New Philharmonia in Amsterdam. "It is not," she explained to London's Independent newspaper, "a mechanical clarity or a pure intellectual analytical clarity, but a clarity of what is being said in the music."

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