“Age Cannot Wither” Conductors: It’s Just Science

Guinness World Records will tell you otherwise, but in fact, the world’s oldest active “mainstream” symphony conductor is Herbert Blomstedt, 95.

Orchestra conductors have always lived longer than people in other professions. Famous conductors of the past, then in an era when life expectancy was around 50 years, lived well into their 80s and 90s — Leopold Stokowski (95), Pablo Casals (96), Nadia Boulanger (92), and Arturo Toscanini (89), to name a few.

Stokowski went beyond his Fantasia fame and continued to conduct major orchestras until his death. (I saw him conduct in London in 1977, a few months before his death.)

For the San Francisco Symphony alone, all its living former music directors are in that category. Besides Blomstedt (with the SF Symphony from 1985–1995), there’s Seiji Ozawa (87, with SFS 1970–1976), Edo de Waart (81, with SFS 1970-1985), and Michael Tilson Thomas (78, with SFS 1995–2020).

“Retirement is not a question of age,” Blomstedt has said, “it should be flexible. I just love the music so much that I just can’t give up. There are always things that I want to learn. I’m never satisfied. I’m happy for the results we get now and then, but I’m not really satisfied. Satisfaction lies in the hope of even better possibilities in the future, and I want to take all those chances.”

Whatever’s in the water in San Francisco, conductors’ longevity is witnessed around the world. While demonstrators in Paris are turning the town upside down, protesting the change o