The conductor Kurt Sanderling died yesterday in Berlin at the age of 98, one day short of his 99th birthday. He may best be remembered as a survivor of totalitarian regimes through a combination of luck and the wisdom to stay out of politics. His career began in 1931 at the Berlin State Orchestra, where he served as coach and rehearsal director. According to today’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times by Mary Rourke, he learned about conducting by watching Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber, and Otto Klemperer. He was dismissed from the Berlin State Orchestra with the rise of the Nazis in 1933 because he was Jewish. He found work at the Deutsche Oper Berlin but finally fled Germany in 1936. At a time when contemporaries such as Georg Solti and Erich Leinsdorf escaped to the west, Sanderling went to Moscow, where he had relatives.
In Russia he conducted the Moscow Radio Symphony and later the Leningrad Philharmonic. He attributed his success in the Soviet Union to his habit of avoiding politics. Rourke’s obituary includes a telling quotation:
Others made history; I made music.
In 1960 he moved to East Berlin to serve as Music Director of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. While this ensemble rarely performed outside the Soviet bloc, Sanderling began to build a reputation as a guest conductor. This led to regular appearances with the Philharmonia Orchestra in Great Britain and an Emeritus Conductor position with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra. His major appearances in the United States were in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In 1991 he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic on a two-week European tour. He had been approached to serve as Music Director but refused due to other commitments. (The position was then filled by Esa-Pekka Salonen.)
Beyond his physical presence Sanderling established at least a moderate portfolio of recordings. Amazon.com currently lists one live concert album and 82 studio recordings. Perhaps most important among these is his recording with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra of Deryck Cooke’s completion of Gustav Mahler’s tenth symphony (in the “Cooke II” version, the same one used by Simon Rattle in his first recording of this symphony with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra).
In addition to his recording legacy, Sanderling has left a “living legacy” in the form of this three sons. Stefan is Music Director of the Florida Orchestra in Tampa Bay. Michael is currently a free-lance conductor based in Germany. Meanwhile, Thomas has returned to where Sanderling made his strongest reputation, conducting the Russian National Orchestra in the “new” Russia.