The oldest active conductor in Americamain
Jo Simons has written a memoir titled, My Father Wakes Up Laughing. Here’s why:
My father, Edward Simons, at 99 years young, is (we believe) the oldest active orchestra conductor in the country. He continues to be the powerful musical force in Rockland County, NY that he always was. The symphony he founded in 1952 which started out as eight friends getting together to play music once a week, quickly mushroomed to 65 plus players under Dad’s baton, and is still going strong as the Rockland Symphony Orchestra. My violist and pianist mother, the late Janet Kelley Simons, his life-long musical cohort, was responsible for the two of them ending up in the New York City area. Together, starting in 1950, when we moved from Manhattan to Rockland County, they unleashed a dual musical mission: first reinstating strings instruction in the schools that had vanished 10 years earlier, then in 1956, opening the Community Music School in Spring Valley, NY, starting the symphony, affiliating the music school with Rockland Community College and so much more.
Amongst Dad’s musical doings over time, he conducted 8 Broadway shows starting with Where’s Charley? in 1948, and ending in 1964 when he took Camelot on the road. He was dubbed “the best conductor of jazz,” in a New York Times review in the early 50’s. He also became a teacher of Music Appreciation at Rockland Community College in 1965 and retired from that in the early 80’s but continued to teach an extension music class for seniors until he was 97.
Dad has taught in colleges most of his life, yet he does not have a college degree. He tried going to college to study music after high school in Pittsburgh, PA but soon realized he knew more about the music being taught than the instructors did!
Today, my father has slowed down somewhat — he no longer drives, but he continues to conduct, teach and play his violin. This month, on two occasions, he played viola in a quartet for fund-raisers for his symphony and is scheduled to conduct a Young People’s concert in October. Every Wednesday, he plays folk songs with lots of schmaltz at Fountain View, a Jewish nursing home. On Fridays, he goes to the Steiner Fellowship in Chestnut Ridge, NY where my mother ended up before she died in 1998. Dad goes there for lunch and then plays his violin, accompanied by a pianist for the crowd. In the recent past, he would also play his violin in strange “concert halls” such as the gas station where he would take his car to be serviced, or the library where retired accountants help people do their taxes, or a rehab center where he once went to help his painful right knee. Everybody loved being serenaded by that fun-loving old guy with the violin.
Dad is not a pianist, but he sits at his piano regularly and plays Bach and Beethoven. He is eternally fascinated by how composers put together their pieces and finds a great deal of satisfaction in continuing to explore the great masters’ works. He has learned all of the Beethoven sonatas and the preludes and fugues of Bach too. He also still teaches violin and occasionally has a conducting student as well.
Every September since 2002, Dad has been conducting the “Concert for Remembrance, 9/11.” An adult violin student of his lost her 24-year old son, Welles Crowther, after he bravely led over 25 people to safety before losing his life in the tragedy. Top notch professional musicians donate their services every September to honor Welles, also known as “the man in the red bandanna.”
Dad also sings bass in an informal choir every Thursday nights conducted by a local singer, Sheila Schonbrun. He’s not a bass, but when the notes get too low for him, he sings them an octave higher. Sheila tells the other basses, “If you can’t find your notes, listen to Ed.” The most remarkable thing about my father, to me, is not his musical expertise, but his attitude about living. He is the most delightful, positive person I have ever known and I’m thrilled to be his daughter!
Jo’s book will be published in July.