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Top Five Longest-Serving Music Directors

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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.