A Ca comfortable retirement, without work and with acres of recreation available. Something we all aspire to, isn’t it? Not quite, it seems, especially if you’re a classical musician. Composers especially struggle to store their manuscript paper. Rossini and Verdi both tried but failed, the latter returning in his 70s to write otello and Falstaff. Performers can also find it hard to get away from the “garish lights” (Dickens’ currency) of the concert platform, and it’s not uncommon to see spirited young 70s or 80s stepping up on the scene.
Some push even further, still working enthusiastically into their 90s – like pianist Ruth Slenczynska who, at 97, has just recorded a new album for Deccca. So here are 15 of Slenczynska’s nonagenarian colleagues for whom the creative buzz is too good to let go.
Which musicians continued to play well into the 90s?
1 Herbert Blomstedt
Who is the most dynamic Beethoven conductor living today? The New Yorker recently voted for Herbert Blomstedt, 94, citing a performance by Seventh Symphony with ‘a frothy energy that borders on animal joy’. Where does the Swedish musician acquire his dynamism and vigor? Being sober and a lifetime non-smoker may help. But it is above all being ‘desperately in love with music’ that stimulates him. Chicago, Leipzig, Vienna, Berlin and London are all on his calling card in the coming months. Quite the start of July’s 95th birthday celebrations.
2 Pablo Casals
Unlike Blomstedt, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals liked to smoke, sometimes playing with a pipe in his mouth. His performing career spanned 84 years, including recitals for Queen Victoria and John F Kennedy’s White House. Also a composer and conductor, at the age of 94 he directs his Himne has the United Nations in the United Nations General Assembly and continued to perform until shortly before his death two years later. “Be young all your life,” he advised. ‘And tell the world things that are true.’
3 Andrés Segovia
Segovia was also a big pipe smoker. More importantly, it revolutionized perceptions of the guitar, establishing it as a “serious” classical instrument. The Spaniard performed well until he was in his nineties, although the results could be unpredictable. “Legendary fingers obeyed him only intermittently,” wrote one reviewer of a 1984 concert. But Segovia continued until the age of 94, defying poor eyesight and increasing physical frailty. Why? “I’ll have an eternity to rest,” he replied.
4 Menahem Pressler
Over half a century, Menahem Pressler’s Beaux Arts Trio achieved iconic status, and when it finally disbanded in 2008, the German pianist could easily have slipped quietly into well-deserved retirement. Not even a little. At 84, he relaunched his career as a solo pianist. Aged 90, he made his late debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and recorded CDs of Mozart and Debussy. Even life-saving surgery in 2015 couldn’t stop it. “I always think about what I did, what I could do,” he says. ‘And what I will do do.’
5 Thea Musgrave
Similar thoughts are in the Scottish composer Thea Musgraveapproaching his 94th birthday. Not content with ten operas already in the bag, she is working on an eleventh – Orlando, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf. Three hours every morning, seven days a week, that’s his schedule. “During the lockdown it kept me sane,” she says. “I have my imagination, which can go where it wants.
6 Elliot Carter
Musgrave lived for many years in the United States, where Mr. and Mrs. Elliott Carter were frequent dinner companions. King of compositional longevity, Carter wrote his first opera at age 90, and its title – And then ? – was clearly a question he still asked himself on a daily basis. He went on to release another 60 tracks before his death in 2012 at the age of 103. He knew that some found his music “difficult”, but it continued to attract admirers. “I’ll be damned if I know why I write all this music that people love,” he said. ‘This some people like it, anyway.
seven george walker
“Keep going” was the advice given to Carter’s American composer, George Walker, by his teacher Nadia Boulanger. He needed it. His career as a pianist is seriously hampered “because I was black”, and it is difficult to program his own music. Nonetheless, he persisted, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for his Lilac in 1996. “I felt like if I kept pushing for what I hoped to achieve, I would get there,” he once said. He wrote his last work in 2016, at the age of 94.
8 Brian Havergal
In 1927, Havergal Brian put the finishing touches to his vast Symphony No. 1, “The Gothic”. However, his demands were so enormous that the work did not make its professional debut until 1966, eight months after the English composer had celebrated his 90th birthday. Even at this age, he had by no means finished writing symphonies – of his total of 32 symphonies, seven had yet to be written. Often cantankerous type, his tenacity nevertheless attracts fervent followers. Few composers, one writer commented, could claim to have written “at the same time as both Brahms and Elton John’.
9 Leopold Stokowski
When Stokowski conducted the premiere of Brian’s 28th Symphony in 1973, it was probably the first instance ever given of “a 91-year-old conductor learning a new work from a 91-year-old composer”, as the said an observer. Stokowski, born in London, had sealed his fame in the United States by directing the soundtrack of Disney’s Fancy. Aged 90, he returned to England, showing an unfailing appetite for spectacle and, as The Guardian reports, “transmitting his fire, his authority with the urgency of a man half a century younger”.
10 Neville Marriner
Like Stokowski, Neville Marriner directed a hit movie soundtrack (1984 Amedee), and played until his nineties. As an orchestral violinist, he played with legendary maestros such as Furtwängler, Monteux and Toscanini before he himself started “bustling” on the podium. In his signature turtleneck sweater, he’s proven a hugely successful ‘twitcher’, making more records with his Academy of St Martin in the Fields than any other conductor-orchestra partnership. He disliked aloud descriptions of conducting, describing it as “not very difficult”. No wonder, then, that ‘Follow the beat’ was his chosen epitaph.
11 Fanny Waterman
Fanny Waterman, on the other hand, was more used to people following her pace. An acclaimed pianist early in her life, she founded the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1961, making it one of the most prestigious competitions in classical music. His energy and positive attitude were legendary. “They call me Marshal Fanny,” she said. ‘I’m a busy panty.’ Waterman left ‘The Leeds’ aged 95, later saying she had been pushed out by management: ‘I didn’t think it was the right time. I wanted to be there forever.
12 Mieczyslaw Horszowski
In 1972 Polish pianist Mieczysław Horszowski telephoned Fanny Waterman to tell her that his pupil Murray Perahia would win the Leeds competition that year. Perahia did. Horszowski himself spent an incredible nine decades performing in public, being “one of the exceptional cases where a child prodigy relentlessly became a great musician”, as Pablo Casals put it. At nine, Horszowski played Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in Warsaw, and 90 years later gave his last recital in Philadelphia. “Age to me is just a relative thing,” he said. “It’s nothing so deep.”
“According to the rules, I should be dead by now,” said Ivry Gitlis at the age of 90. “But I don’t feel like it!” The Israeli violinist was a free spirit, as happy to collaborate with Yoko Ono, Stéphane Grappelli and François Truffaut as on a conventional recital platform. Even the confinement in a wheelchair could not prevent him from playing. Aged 96, he was pushed on stage in Tel Aviv by conductor Zubin Mehta and performed for half an hour with pianist Martha Argerich. It was one of his last appearances.
14 Al Gallodoro
Saxophonist and clarinetist Al Gallodoro was a related cross spirit. He started out as a jazzman in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and claimed to have performed the famous clarinet slide launch of Gershwin Rhapsody in blue more than 10,000 times in his career. He also had plenty of classical talent, playing bass clarinet in Toscanini’s famed NBC Symphony Orchestra. Described by bandleader Jimmy Dorsey as “the greatest saxophonist of all time”, Gallodoro gave his last concert just two weeks before his death, aged 95, in 2008.
15 savage earl
Pianist Earl Wild had Gershwin connections too. He played Rhapsody in blue below Toscanini, and composed elaborate keyboard pieces based on the music of his fellow American. But he is best remembered as a “super-virtuoso in Horowitz’s class”, excelling in Liszt and Rachmaninoff. A quadruple bypass threatened to end his career in 2004, but a year later he rebounded in an acclaimed recital at Carnegie Hall three days after his 90th birthday. “After my operation, I decided that I wouldn’t stop playing,” he said. ‘Why live if you can’t play when you’ve been doing it all your life?’
Drawing: David Lyttleton