Conductor thrived behind Iron Curtain

Kurt Sanderling, who led the Leningrad Philharmonic and the East Berlin Symphony Orchestra under Soviet rule and won admirers in the West later in his career as a guest conductor for orchestras in London, Los Angeles and elsewhere, has died.

Sanderling, who would have turned 99 Monday, died Saturday in Berlin of causes related to old age, said his son, Stefan.

Sanderling won critical respect for his intellectual grasp of music and his skill at conveying emotion, particularly as a conductor of the Romantic composers Johannes Brahms, Ludwig von Beethoven and Robert Schumann.


He was a sensitive interpreter of the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, a friend whose music echoed life in the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin.

“Mr. Sanderling was hyper-intelligent but at the same time he brought the most humane quality to his conducting,” pianist Mitsuko Uchida said in a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “With his strength of character and his great humanity, he contributed what players would not otherwise know.”

A large, somber man with wavy hair who bore a strong resemblance to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Sanderling might have had a very different kind of career had it not unfolded primarily behind the Iron Curtain.

“Kurt Sanderling was a great conductor but too few people knew that because he spent so much time in East Germany and Russia,” Ernest Fleischmann, chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when Sanderling first performed with the orchestra in 1984, once observed.

“He played all the basic repertoire ... as though it had been composed yesterday,” Fleischmann, who died last year, told the St. Petersburg Times in a 2003 interview. “Very few conductors are able to do that.”

Sanderling was born in Arys, East Prussia (now Orzysz, Poland), on Sept. 19, 1912.

He studied piano in Berlin and joined the Berlin State Orchestra as a coach and rehearsal director in 1931. The city was a showplace for the conductors he most admired, such as Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber and Otto Klemperer. He learned by watching them, he later said in interviews.

When the Nazis rose to power in Germany in 1933, Sanderling was dismissed from his position because he was Jewish. Two years later he fled the country.

While contemporaries in the music world, including Georg Solti in Hungary and Erich Leinsdorf in Austria, went west to escape Hitler, Sanderling went east. When relatives in Moscow invited him for a holiday, he accepted and did not return to Berlin.

“Those were desperate times for everyone,” Sanderling told The Times in 1990. “Despite the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union, I felt that the Russians saved me.”

His career thrived, first as chief conductor of the Moscow Radio Symphony in 1937 and later as deputy conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, where he worked with the orchestra’s revered chief conductor, Evgeny Mravinsky. Sanderling attributed his success in the East to his habit of staying away from politics. “Others made history; I made music,” he said.

In 1941, the year he joined the Leningrad Philharmonic, Germany invaded Russia. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin sent the orchestra to Siberia, saying it was to protect one of the Soviet Union’s cultural jewels.

Through the three-year siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Sanderling and his colleagues lived and worked in Novosibirsk, Siberia. They gave regular concerts, some of them quite daring.

In 1941 the orchestra premiered the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich. The composer was often out of favor with the government for what his critics called “coarse, vulgar” music, Sanderling later recalled. His Seventh Symphony was originally presented as a work about Russia’s defiance in the face of the German invasion. More recently it has been interpreted as a brash complaint against all totalitarianism.

“After the first movement, everyone asked himself, ‘Will we be arrested just for listening to this music?’” Sanderling said of the premiere performance in a 1994 interview with The Times of London.

The concert continued uninterrupted.

The orchestra was allowed to return to Leningrad in 1944. Sanderling’s career took a turn for the better after Stalin died in 1953. The new Soviet party chief, Nikita Khrushchev, allowed the orchestra to perform in Vienna, Austria, in 1956. Sanderling and Mravinsky conducted parts of the program.

“Undernourished and shadowed by spies, the orchestra was magnificent in concert, a revelation to Western ears,” wrote the London Evening Standard in 2005, recalling the event. Deutsche Grammophon recorded the concert that featured Tchaikovsky’s symphonies No. 4, 5 and 6 and rushed it into release. The recording reached stores as the Soviets invaded Hungary. It was re-released in 1995 as “Symphonien Nos. 4, 5 & 6.”

Sanderling moved to East Berlin in 1960 to begin his new appointment as music director of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the Communist rival of the Berlin Philharmonic on the western side of the wall.

During his 17 years as chief conductor, the orchestra rarely performed outside the Soviet Union bloc.

“Who, you have a right to ask, is Kurt Sanderling?” Times music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote in a 1984 review of Sanderling conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “As far as the United States is concerned, he has been a painfully well-kept secret for nearly half a century.”

Sanderling “is an authoritative, intelligent, gentlemanly conductor of the old school,” Bernheimer wrote. “He doesn’t do much obvious emoting.... Nevertheless he musters tremendous energy when it is warranted and enforces ethereal calm when it isn’t.”

In 1991 Sanderling led the Los Angeles Philharmonic on a two-week tour through Europe.

“Sanderling wasn’t interested in putting on any kind of show as a conductor,” said Ronald Leonard, who was principal cellist of the orchestra at the time. “He knew what he wanted. He was insistent and he got great results,” Leonard told The Times in 2005.

The conductor could be intimidating. “He’d put his hand in front of my face, warning me not to play too loud,” Leonard recalled. “To him, that was a soloist’s job.”

Sanderling was married twice. His survivors include his second wife, the former Barbara Wagner, a double bassist with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra for 25 years; a son, Thomas, from his first marriage; and two sons with Wagner, Stefan and Michael.

All of Sanderling’s sons became professional musicians. Stefan is music director of the Florida Orchestra in Tampa Bay. Thomas leads the Russian National Orchestra, and Michael is a conductor in Germany.

After leaving his position with the Berlin Symphony, Sanderling was a guest conductor, often performing with the London Philharmonia. He retired in 2002 when he was 90.


Rourke is a former Times staff writer.