At 100, a Conductor, Like the Music, Keeps Going
At 100, a Conductor, Like the Music, Keeps Going
By Corey Kilgannon, Feb. 10, 2017
Ed Simons, 100, the conductor and violinist, plays at his longtime home in Rockland County, N.Y. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times
When strangers express amazement that he is 100 years old, the orchestra conductor Ed Simons likes to extend his longevity by saying his love for music “started before I was born,” spurred by his father playing Mozart symphonies on a Victrola.
“I could hear the music in my mom’s belly,” said Mr. Simons, who lives in Pomona, N.Y., in Rockland County. “They told me when I was a kid that I would move to the music.”
Mr. Simons is still moving to the music, performing and teaching the violin as well as conducting the Rockland Symphony Orchestra, which he founded in 1952. He is often described as the oldest active orchestra conductor in the country.
Since his wife, Janet, died 20 years ago, Mr. Simons has been living by himself in the simple house in the woods that he moved to in 1950.
He teaches a handful of violin students and plays at a couple of senior centers every week, not to mention frequent impromptu recitals in waiting rooms or the offices of his doctor, dentist and accountant.
Mr. Simons is known for taking his violin everywhere and playing, even for his auto mechanic.
“The local garage became a concert hall when he had his car serviced — they’d say, ‘Here’s the fiddler,’” said Jo Simons, his daughter, adding that her father stopped driving a year ago, though his license is valid until he turns 103.
Mr. Simons grew up in Pittsburgh and was exposed to the great composers by his father, a Russian-born tailor. He was playing violin by age 9, he said.
His first violin teacher admonished him by hitting his hand with the violin bow, so Mr. Simons took to teaching himself by slipping into concerts and observing and emulating accomplished violinists.
“Music became the motivating factor in my life, and still is,” said Mr. Simons, who laughs easily and punctuates his pithy comments with his bushy eyebrows.
He loved listening to jazz on the radio and often sat outside a Baptist church to hear gospel music. After high school, he played violin in local ensembles and joined the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Skyview Acres, a cooperative community where Mr. Simons lives, is about 40 minutes north of New York City. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times
He married and served in the Navy during World War II, joining a military band. He played with string quartets for President Harry S. Truman while he was aboard the U.S.S. Augusta en route to the Potsdam Conference in 1945, said Ms. Simons, adding that, “Truman would compliment their playing each day, but he ran out of compliments and he would just say, ‘As usual.’”
After his Navy service, Mr. Simons moved to New York City and played with the American Ballet Theater under the prominent conductor Max Goberman.
Mr. Simons began sneaking the full orchestral scores to his hotel room to study them after-hours, even in the bathroom. A candid photograph of this scene reached Mr. Goberman, who took immediate action.
“He said, ‘Ed, do you want to be a conductor?’” Mr. Simons recalled. Mr. Goberman handed over the podium to Mr. Simons for a performance, even though Mr. Simons had no professional conducting experience.
“But I could look at a score and hear an orchestra playing the printed music,” Mr. Simons said, adding that the debut went well and Mr. Goberman gave him his first Broadway conducting job, in the musical “Where’s Charley?” starring Ray Bolger.
He went on to conduct at least eight Broadway shows between 1948 and 1964, including “My Fair Lady’’ and “Camelot.”
In 1950, Mr. Simons and his wife, a violist and pianist, moved with their two children to what was a rural area about 40 minutes north of New York City, and helped pioneer Skyview Acres, a cooperative community. In 1956, the couple established the Community Music School, now known as the Rockland Conservatory of Music.
“He is much beloved in the county and by musicians worldwide,” said Annamae Goldstein, a violinist who played in Mr. Simons’s orchestra as a teenager and now plays with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. “Growing up in Rockland he was a legend. He had this incredible presence, and he still has it.”
Ms. Goldstein plays duets with Mr. Simons on Wednesday afternoons at FountainView, a retirement residence in Monsey, N.Y., which she called “the highlight of my day.” On Wednesday, the gig was sandwiched between her morning rehearsal at the Met with the conductor James Levine and an evening performance of “The Barber of Seville.”
Karen Schulman, FountainView’s director of recreation, said she saw Mr. Simons playing at a physical therapy center, and invited him to play at FountainView.
At his 100th birthday party on Feb. 1, he conducted an ensemble of friends playing music by Scott Joplin and the Beatles.
“The sound of an orchestra has become a part of my mind,” he said. “Many times at night, I can’t fall asleep because music is going on in my head. I’m laying in bed and I have to tell myself, ‘Stop playing.’ But the music keeps on going.”