When I learned that conductor Kurt Sanderling had died, I decided to spend an evening with one of his Shostakovich recordings, perhaps the 15th Symphony. He knew the Russian composer well and that work was a speciality.
Mr. Sanderling, who would have turned 99 on Monday, died on Saturday in Berlin. He was the father of Florida Orchestra music director Stefan Sanderling.
I met the elder Sanderling eight years ago while writing a story about his son, and I have a vivid memory of being in the presence of a great man. Even at his advanced age, he was still immersed in music — the score of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 was open on his desk that day, and there was a death mask of Mendelssohn on the wall.
Mr. Sanderling was a superb conductor, but he was relatively unfamiliar to Western audiences because much of his career was spent behind the Iron Curtain.
Born in East Prussia (now Poland) to Jewish parents, he was a rehearsal pianist at a Berlin opera house when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Fired as a "non-Aryan," he was forced to leave Germany and ended up in the Soviet Union, where life was so desperate during World War II that he and his first wife kept poison pills in case they had no choice but to commit suicide.
In 1941, Mr. Sanderling became co-conductor with the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky of the Leningrad Philharmonic, a great orchestra but seldom heard outside the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1960, he returned to Germany to be music director of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the communist East German rival of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic of West Germany.
Only in the 1970s and '80s did Mr. Sanderling have many engagements in the West. He was a popular guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"People still speak about his concerts," the late Ernest Fleischmann, former CEO of the L.A. Phil, once told me. "It was all the basic repertoire. Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Haydn. They were absolutely revelatory performances. The orchestra just worshiped him. He made one listen to that basic repertoire as though it had been composed yesterday. Very few conductors today are able to do that."
In retirement, Mr. Sanderling lived in a modest house in northeast Berlin, with his second wife, Barbara, a double bass player. He was a wise resource on matters musical for Stefan and his other sons, Thomas and Michael, all of whom are conductors.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.