Does life begin at 90?

We celebrate the great musicians still performing in their tenth decade

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Does life begin at 90?
Conductor Neville Marriner
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Today sees the celebration of the official 90th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, it’s something of a double celebration in the British Royal household, as her husband, The Duke of Edinburgh, also turns 95 today.

Ninety is an age by which most people have long since gone into retirement and settled for a life pottering in the garden. However, like Her Majesty, there are also a number of musicians for whom the arrival of this most venerable birthdays is by no means a reason to pack up the career. Far from it, in fact. Here, then, are six of the finest…

 

Sir Neville Marriner (born 15 April, 1924)

This morning, the Queen celebrated her 90th birthday with a service attended by the great and good at St Paul’s Cathedral. When he reached the same milestone two years ago, Sir Neville Marriner marked the occasion by conducting a concert by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the ensemble he founded back in 1959. This was by no means a farewell appearance, as Sir Neville has showed no signs of wanting to retire. Earlier this year, he approached his 92nd birthday by heading on tour with the AMSF to Japan, China and South Korea.

 

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (born 3 October, 1923)

In April 2010, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland looked to have scuppered Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s hopes of conducting the Hallé in a concert in Manchester – the ash cloud from the volcano had grounded European flights, and he was stuck in Poznan in Poland. Most 86 year-olds would have simply said ‘so be it’ and cancelled. Not Skrowaczewski, who hired a car and drivers and covered the 800 miles plus Channel crossing just in time to make the gig. That same sense of energy and purpose has seen him carry on conducting regularly well past his 90th birthday, in what has described as ‘a new era for me’.

 

Menahem Pressler (born 16 December, 1923)

One of the greats of the chamber music scene, pianist Menahem Pressler co-founded the Beaux Arts Trio with violinist Daniel Guilet and cellist Bernard Greenhouse in 1955. With various changes of membership, but always anchored by Pressler at the piano, the Trio carried on performing right until September 2008, when it played its final concert in Lucerne, Switzerland. This, though, did not signal the end of Pressler’s own career and in 2014, at the age of 90, he made his concerto debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He is still performing and giving masterclasses and, as strong in his opinions as he is genial as a character, he is an interviewer’s dream.

 

György Kurtág (born 19 February, 1926)

Dating back to his Op. 1 String Quartet No. 1 in 1959, György Kurtág has built up a catalogue of chamber music, orchestral works, songs and choral music that undoubtedly places the Hungarian among the finest composers of his generation. One thing, though, is missing from that noble list: an opera. But what better time to address that gap than at the age of 90? Kurtág, who initially plied his trade alongside colleagues such as Messiaen and Ligeti, is currently putting the final touches to Fin de Partie, his opera based on the play of the same name by Samuel Beckett, one of his lifelong inspirations. The work will be performed in Salzburg and at Milan’s La Scala later this year.

 

Fanny Waterman (born 22 March, 1920)

First held in 1963, the Leeds International Piano Competition has brought players of the calibre of Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida and András Schiff to the attention of the world. At the helm of the Leeds ship from day one was its co-founder Fanny Waterman who, as artistic director, not only organised the competition but chaired the jury too. It was a role she continued right until last year when, at the age of 95, she decided it was time to hand over to a successor. Her own career as professional pianist, incidentally, had begun long before ‘The Leeds’ came into being – appearing in concerts from the late 1930s, she made her debut at the BBC Proms in 1942.

 

Ivry Gitlis (born 25 August, 1922)

Finally, in the video below we see Ivry Gitlis performing at a special concert in his honour at this year’s Festival de Pâques in Aix-en-Provence. In it, the revered Israeli violinist is accompanied by Khatia Buniatishvili who, at 28, is 65 years his junior. Buniatishvili is just one of Gitlis’s distinguished list of musical collaborators that, over the years, has also included composer and violinist George Enescu and conductors Eugene Ormandy and George Szell. As well as still playing, he is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

 

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