Top Five Longest-Serving Music Directors

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Seiji Ozawa leads the Saito Kinen Orchestra in 2010 at Carnegie Hall in New York Seiji Ozawa leads the Saito Kinen Orchestra in 2010 at Carnegie Hall (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Young conductors seem to be dominating the classical music headlines with a new exciting generation of maestros, including Gustavo Dudamel, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Pablo Heras-Casado and Lionel Bringuier, attracting much attention.

But there’s something to be said for elder conductors, particularly ones who have spent years if not decades with one orchestra, molding it into an ensemble that often represents the person with the baton. The following five conductors have shown both longevity and loyalty, becoming synonymous with the major ensembles they’re still leading:

1. Zubin Mehta at the Israel Philharmonic (53 years)

For Zubin Mehta it all started in 1961. "I was sitting in Vienna, completely without any work, with my family and two children and I get the telegram saying to please come to Israel in May,” he has said, recalling his first invitation to conduct at the Israel Philharmonic. "And then they invited me again.” The Philharmonic appointed him music adviser in 1968 and then music director in 1977. Even though he turned 77 this year, there’s no reason for him to leave anytime soon; he was made the organization’s director for life in 1981.

Last year Mehta spoke with WQXR about working with the Israel Philharmonic, including the occasional quarrels:

2. James Levine
at the Metropolitan Opera (41 years)

The year after his 1971 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine was named its principal conductor. It took four more years for him to assume the full duties of music director, making him the longest tenured chief conductor at a major symphony orchestra. However, when Levine assumed the position, the ensemble was known as a pit orchestra. Under his fastidious watch, the Met Orchestra has become a symphonic force in its own right, resuming orchestra-only performances in 1991 and earning a spot in Gramophone’s 2008 rankings of the 20 best orchestras in the world. Only recently has Levine taken a break from his duties due to a series of health issues. He’s now back at the helm, and fittingly started his comeback conducting the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Listen to the finale of that performance, of Schubert's Ninth Symphony:

3. Iván Fischer at the Budapest Festival Orchestra (30 years)

The website for the Budapest Festival Orchestra says, “The partnership between Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra has proved to be one of the greatest success stories in the past three decades of classical music.” This claim would seem hyperbolic, but it’s hard to find within the symphonic sphere as meteoric a rise as this ensemble and its leader over the same period of time. Fischer founded the orchestra in 1983 along with Hungarian pianist and composer Zoltan Kocsis. Since then he has built it into a world-class institution, known for its innovative programming, staging, and above all, its quality of performance.

4. Seiji Ozawa at the Saito Kinen Orchestra (29 years)

In 1984, Seiji Ozawa and fellow conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama joined together to honor their teacher Hideo Saito on the 10th anniversary of Saito’s death. The resulting concerts were the genesis of the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Since then Ozawa has been the guiding force for the ensemble, as he has molded it into one of the world’s best. (The SKO also broke into Gramophone’s top 20). This past summer, the 78-year-old maestro was active at the annual Saito Kinen Festival, conducting an opera and an orchestral concert, as well as participating in the programs for young musicians.


5. Yuri Temirkanov at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (25 years)

When Yuri Temirkanov took the helm of his hometown St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in 1988, it was still known as the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, and the U.S.S.R. had not yet dissolved. The oldest orchestra in Russia, it can trace its history back to 1802. Under Temirkanov’s leadership, the Philharmonic has broadened its range, venturing into 20th century and 21st century repertory and has remained one of the most esteemed ensembles in the country. This year marks Temirkanov’s 75th birthday and his 25th anniversary with the ensemble.

Weigh in: Who's your favorite veteran maestro? Leave your comments below.


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Comments [6]

pat cates from Birmingham Alabama

My favorite conductors were Ormandy Reiner, Szell, and the late Amerigo Marino.

Dec. 03 2015 04:56 AM
michele K

Pittsburgh had William Steinberg as conductor/director for 24 years, too. I don't know how this ranks against other cities.

Jul. 17 2015 07:41 PM
Kim from pacific northwest

Gerard Schwarz spent 28 years with the Seattle Symphony, 26 of them as music director.

Jun. 12 2015 10:27 AM
Patrick from Vancouver, Canada

What about Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra? I know some have criticized Mr. Ozawa for over-extending his stay in Boston, but there is no denying that he accomplished a lot there too. We should not forget that the Boston Symphony that Mr. Ozawa took over was quite a dispirited ensemble after the years under Erich Leinsdorf. Many of the recordings they made together - the Mahler recordings, the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Rudolf Serkin, the Ravel, Richard Strauss and Berlioz recordings, the recording of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, and the outstanding recording of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, to name just a few, remain outstanding performances even to this day.

Whenever a new music director takes over an orchestra, it is all too easy to find faults with the previous one, but let's give credit where credit is due.

I believe that under Mr. Ozawa, the Boston Symphony once again regained its place as "The Aristocrat of Orchestras."

Nov. 19 2013 12:42 PM
harold braun

For a long time Eugene Ormandy(Philadelphia orchestra,1936-1980)and Jewgeni Mravinsky(Leningrad Philharmonic 1937-1984) held the record.

Nov. 15 2013 05:42 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

It has to be Frederick Stock with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1905 until his death in 1941. I never heard a recorded performance of his I didn't like; and his recording of Enesco's Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A is "exhibit A". The strings sound like they're Romany born and bred. Maestro Stock amended the timpani ending in the penultimate bar to tonic-dominant rather than the printed tonic note only. The Reznicek Overture to "Donna Diana" is also exceptional, ditto the Schumann Symphony No. 4. I wish I could have heard him conduct live, but he was a bit before my time.

Nov. 14 2013 07:01 PM

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