Ozawa Joins Growing Number of Conductors on Disabled List

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If symphony orchestras were baseball teams, this would be a normal fact of the annual March rite known as spring training.

But lately the number of veteran orchestra conductors on the disabled list has been notably high, even for a profession that makes big demands on one's physical stamina (while celebrating a kind of mythic virility and longevity).

On Wednesday, Seiji Ozawa, Japan's most famous conductor, canceled all performances for one year, after doctors advised him to rest as he struggles to recover after a battle with cancer, reports the AFP. Ozawa, 76, has been in continued poor health since he underwent surgery for esophageal cancer in 2010 and was treated for a hernia last year. More recently, he has been recovering from bouts of pneumonia.

Ozawa is the former music director of the Vienna State Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

A week ago, the Boston Symphony announced that Kurt Masur, 84, had withdrawn from conducting Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis due to his "current physical condition." This included performances in Boston as well as at Carnegie Hall this week, although he said he would nonetheless go ahead with performances with various orchestras in Israel, Germany, China and France in March and April. Masur's assistant told the New York Times that "a combination of vision problems and the toll of age had led him to cancel."

On Feb. 15, Semyon Bychkov, 59, withdrew from six performances of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten at La Scala due to surgery for an aggravated hernia. And Riccardo Chailly, the conductor widely thought to be a candidate to succeed James Levine at the Boston Symphony, canceled two months of concerts in late November, also due to ill health. Levine himself is still recovering from multiple back surgeries and has canceled all performances through next season.

The cancellations raise many questions -- about whether orchestras can continue to engage their iconic but ailing conductors and what the implications are for both musicians and ticket holders.

Yet it would seem that the secret to a swift recovery may lie in the profession. Orchestra conductors live 38 per cent longer than the general population, says a study by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Consider how Arturo Toscanini, Pablo Casals and Leopold Stokowski all conducted orchestras into their 90s. Lorin Maazel turned 82 this week, days after leading the Vienna Philharmonic in three Carnegie Hall concerts. Later this month, Christoph von Dohnányi, also 82, will lead the New York Philharmonic and in April, Herbert Blomstedt, 85, will take to the same podium for a week of subscription concerts.

In Why Do Music Conductors Live into Their 90's?, Dr. Steven Rochlitz, suggests that conducting is good cardio. The heart has to pump two to three times as hard to move blood through arms simply held aloft. With their arms waving, torsos moving and legs continually keeping balance, conductors get an all-around workout enjoyed by few other types of musicians. 

UPDATE: For an example of a conductor who uses his whole body to lead a performance, watch this widely-seen video of Joseph R. Olefirowicz playing to the orchestra camera in a Vienna Volksoper performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.