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America’s (And Maybe The World’s) Oldest Working Conductor

Feb 14, 2017

Ed Simons, 100, the conductor and violinist, plays at his longtime home in Rockland County, N.Y.CreditFred R. Conrad for The New York Times

When strangers express amazement that he is 100 years old, the orchestra conductor Ed Simons likes to extend his longevity by saying his love for music “started before I was born,” spurred by his father playing Mozart symphonies on a Victrola.

“I could hear the music in my mom’s belly,” said Mr. Simons, who lives in Pomona, N.Y., in Rockland County. “They told me when I was a kid that I would move to the music.”

Mr. Simons is still moving to the music, performing and teaching the violin as well as conducting the Rockland Symphony Orchestra, which he founded in 1952. He is often described as the oldest active orchestra conductor in the country.

Since his wife, Janet, died 20 years ago, Mr. Simons has been living by himself in the simple house in the woods that he moved to in 1950.

He teaches a handful of violin students and plays at a couple of senior centers every week, not to mention frequent impromptu recitals in waiting rooms or the offices of his doctor, dentist and accountant.

Mr. Simons is known for taking his violin everywhere and playing, even for his auto mechanic.

“The local garage became a concert hall when he had his car serviced — they’d say, ‘Here’s the fiddler,’” said Jo Simons, his daughter, adding that her father stopped driving a year ago, though his license is valid until he turns 103.

Mr. Simons grew up in Pittsburgh and was exposed to the great composers by his father, a Russian-born tailor. He was playing violin by age 9, he said.

His first violin teacher admonished him by hitting his hand with the violin bow, so Mr. Simons took to teaching himself by slipping into concerts and observing and emulating accomplished violinists.

“Music became the motivating factor in my life, and still is,” said Mr. Simons, who laughs easily and punctuates his pithy comments with his bushy eyebrows.

He loved listening to jazz on the radio and often sat outside a Baptist church to hear gospel music. After high school, he played violin in local ensembles and joined the Pittsburgh Symphony.