BERLIN (Reuters) - Kurt Masur, the German conductor who revitalized the New York Philharmonic and played a key role in peaceful protests in Leipzig that paved the way for the 1990 reunification of postwar Germany, died on Saturday at age 88.
Masur's distinguished musical career saw him rise from an orchestra coach at a theater in communist East Germany to roles including music director of the New York Philharmonic and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
New York Philharmonic President Matthew VanBesien said he had "set a standard" during an 11-year stint at the orchestra that ended in 2002 and had "left a legacy that lives on today".
"What we remember most vividly is Masur's profound belief in music as an expression of humanism," VanBesien said in a statement announcing the conductor's death.
"We felt this powerfully in the wake of 9/11, when he led the Philharmonic in a moving performance of Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem, and musicians from the Orchestra gave free chamber concerts around Ground Zero."
The Philharmonic said he died in hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut. It said a performance on Saturday of George Frideric Handel's 'Messiah' would be dedicated to Masur.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra said on its Twitter account that Masur was "a true musical legend, he will be greatly missed".
Masur was born in 1927 in the Silesian town of Brieg, then German and now Brzeg in Poland, and spent much of his life living under communist rule in East Germany. After studying piano, conducting and composition, he took up his first major role as conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic in 1955.
While head of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he joined five other prominent citizens in helping avoid a possible bloodbath at a crucial anti-government protest on the square outside his concert hall in October 1989.
The success of that unprecedented peaceful mass protest led to the fall of the Berlin Wall the following month and German reunification the next year.
German President Joachim Gauck, who like Masur was active in the grassroots protests that led to the end of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), wrote to Masur's third wife Tomoko Sakurai-Masur on Saturday to express his sympathy at the loss of an "excellent musician" and "great humanist".
"Many people will never forget how, in the autumn of 1989, he campaigned for fundamental changes in the GDR, for people to have freedom and for democracy," Gauck said.
German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said the country had lost one of its "best cultural ambassadors".
"As someone who prepared the way for and guaranteed a peaceful transition to unity, the united Germany has a huge amount to thank him for," Gruetters said.
The oft-decorated Masur was awarded Germany's Order of Merit and the French Legion of Honour. He left behind a broad repertoire of recordings of symphonies, operas and concerts by the leading composers of classical music.
Editing by Tom Heneghan and David Clarke