Three Leading Conductors on Growing Old Gracefully

By Stadlen, Matthew | The Spectator, July 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

Three Leading Conductors on Growing Old Gracefully


Stadlen, Matthew, The Spectator


'It's a bad week. I gather we've lost one.' Sir Neville Marriner, himself a huge name, is talking about the death of one of the world's top conductors. Lorin Maazel, who died at home in Virginia at the age of 84, had led orchestras including the New York Philharmonic. He was still conducting this year. Last month, the Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos died in Pamplona at the age of 80. Only a week earlier he had announced he had cancer and would have to retire. Conductors, it is no secret, enjoy long working lives -- some have even passed away mid-performance. But what's their secret?

This summer's BBC Proms are celebrating four 'birthday batonists'. Among them are the three knights, Sir Neville (90), Sir Roger Norrington (80) and Sir Andrew Davis (70). Each has been waving his baton -- Sir Andrew just his hands since he got tennis elbow -- in this country or abroad for half a century. Sir Neville, who made his name with the chamber orchestra the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, has recorded some 900 records and conducted 2,000 works and is still a guest conductor with several orchestras.

Compared with other musicians, he says, conductors are physically 'fairly lucky'. 'The upper half of your body is kept on the move. I still play tennis. Not very well. Only with the girls. I certainly notice it if I have two or three days away from the podium. I begin to miss it and think I ought to have some physical activity elsewhere.' Although he is on his feet six hours a day, Sir Neville insists on standing. 'I get a little depressed when I see a conductor beginning to sit down for rehearsals. You lose a certain amount of engagement with the players.'

Sir Roger, though, no longer stands during rehearsals, nor in certain performances -- such as the St John Passion he's conducting at the Proms. 'I sit to rehearse nowadays,' he tells me at his house in the Berkshire countryside. 'I find it much less tiring. It's not just to do with age -- I can work better.' And Sir Andrew, while agreeing that the profession is very good cardiovascularly, says that it's terrible for the legs. 'I had to have an artery bypass a few years ago because you're either standing up in the same place or sitting on a stool -- which is probably worse because it cuts into the circulation. So I try to walk at least a mile a day.'

Before training, aged 40, for three months as a conductor in Los Angeles, Sir Neville was a violinist. 'Being a pianist or violin player is phenomenally difficult and doesn't get any easier as you get older. Physically, and technically too. You suddenly realise the limitations -- if you just get arthritis in one hand you're pretty well doomed.' Sir Roger, who was also a tenor for many years, began conducting professionally at 28 but his big breakthrough came at 50. He is known for his historically informed performances.

'Musicians,' he says, 'clearly tail off at a certain point and if they're sensible they stop playing. Fifteen years ago I couldn't have played the violin any longer because I had a neck operation and my hand's a little bit arthritic. And I couldn't possibly sing. I'd have had to retire and just teach, but [as a conductor] I'm as good as new now at 80.' He's cutting his work from 26 to 24 weeks a year, but, when he's not conducting, he's preparing scores or attending to business.

Conducting a concert, says Sir Roger, is not very exhausting. Rehearsals, though, are 'very tiring. You're going down a motorway the wrong way and trying to get all the cars to turn round and go your way. …

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