Cry me a river

It must be that overwhelming wave of affection that greets them when they come to work every day:

The sudden death of Jean-Marc Cochereau, the French conductor, has prompted the very readable music writer Norman Lebrecht to issue a warning about the health hazards of conducting. M Cochereau collapsed and died from cardiac arrest on the Monday before last while rehearsing Beethoven’s Eroica symphony with the Orleans Symphony Orchestra – during the funeral march, as it happens…

Other fatal podium collapses during the 20th century include Giuseppe Sinopoli (2001), Dmitri Mitropoulos (1960), Eduard van Beinum (1960), Franz Konwitschny (1962), Paul Kletzki (1973) and Arvid Jansons (1984). Lebrecht looked into some of these deaths – Sinopoli, especially – in an excellent piece he wrote in 2001.

He concludes that it’s not only stress which kills conductors. In most cases these individuals were getting on a bit: they were pushing 60 at least. Jansons had a dicky ticker. And with some of the others we find “lifestyle factors” that probably contributed to their early demise – heavy smoking for van Beinum and Sinopoli, booze for Konwitschny (hence his nickname, “Kon-whisky”), and poor diets very often.

I had always thought that conducting was a very healthy profession, at least for the successful members of the profession. Lots of exercise at work (and no mandatory sitting, which recent research suggests is quite harmful), a highly unusual respect for the value of age and wisdom, and lots and lots of control – perhaps the single most important key variable in determining chronic stress levels and one’s likelihood of falling victim to stress-related disease. And, of course, being the alpha baboon is known to reduce the harmful physiological effects of stress.

It would be very interesting to compare life spans between orchestra musicians and conductors. I personally have no doubt which profession is more conducive to longevity.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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