June grads: Don't believe your parents or grandparents if they tell you that the time you just spent in high school or college represents "the best years of your life." If that were true, then the road ahead could lead only downhill — denying the profoundly desirable possibility that the greatest experiences will come near the end rather than the beginning of your journey.
My own thinking has obviously changed on this score. Like many boys of the Baby Boom generation, I grew up with the conviction that a job as a Major League ballplayer provided the most glorious career on earth. More recently, I've become convinced that another of my childhood obsessions (classical music conducting) offers even more wondrous work, and that waving a baton actually beats waving a bat. To understand the contrast, you need only compare the current standing of two contemporary superstars: Seattle Mariners designated hitter Ken Griffey Jr. and a great British conductor, Sir Colin Davis.
Griffey, approaching his 41st birthday, offers a sad shadow of his former excellence, and our Seattle media deliver frequent complaints about his punchless season. In 2010's first 50 games, the once fearsome slugger has watched his average drop below .190, with no home runs, after slapping some 630 dingers in his previous 20-year Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Sir Colin, on the other hand, is batting close to a thousand in the major leagues of international conducting — taking his achievements to unprecedented heights at age 82. In the past decade, he has issued a series of spectacularly fine recordings with the London Symphony, including thrilling versions of the Edward Elgar symphonies and violin concerto, an explosive William Walton First Symphony, an impassioned account of Haydn's The Creation and much more. Always a solid, capable interpreter, Davis in old age delivers performances that glow with new warmth, intensity and spirituality.
Nor is he the first famous conductor to do his most celebrated work late in life. The Hungarian-born genius Fritz Reiner became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 64 and continued to lead the ensemble for the remaining 10 years of his life, creating a series of epochal recordings that have recently been reissued in Super Audio editions as unrivaled examples of orchestral precision and power. Bruno Walter, another immigrant conductor, worked incessantly till his fatal heart attack at age 85. He had assembled a group of handpicked musicians in the Hollywood American Legion hall near his Beverly Hills home, cranking out acclaimed recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Mahler to provide his final insights on the music he loved. Legendary maestros Leopold Stokowski and Pablo Casals both kept up with demanding schedules through the age of 95; for Casals in particular (who enjoyed previous renown as a cello soloist) all his most famous conducting accomplishments occurred after age 80.
The "sunset glow" suffusing the work of all these great orchestral interpreters also enriched the late creations of celebrated composers. Beethoven (The Late Quartets), Bach (The Art of the Fugue), Mozart ( The Requiem), Mahler (The Ninth and Tenth Symphonies), Bruckner (The Ninth Symphony), Bartok (Third Piano Concerto) — all forged eloquently elegiac masterpieces in the shadow of failing health and impending death.
In most fields of endeavor, even geniuses face declining powers in the final phase of existence: Leo Tolstoy wrote no big novels after Anna Karenina (completed 33 years before his death), and the immortal Shakespeare finished The Tempest, the last play definitively acknowledged as his work, at least six years before he died at 52).
Only in music, the most spiritual of all arts, has old age conferred frequent advantages, often bringing new richness, depth and even grandeur to the artistry of both composers and performers. Most of us spend the first third of our lives ignoring death, the second third denying it and the final third struggling against it. That struggle can shine through in musical expression with nobility that trumps youthful impetuosity. The British novelist E.M. Forster wrote: "Death destroys a man, but knowledge of death saves him."
This year's graduates should take note: The more spiritual the work you choose, the better the chance for rewards that last a lifetime. The more physical your focus, on the other hand, the quicker the decline from your youthful peaks.
In other words, the octogenarian excellence of Colin Davis hardly stands as an anomaly among musical giants; for princes of the podium, advancing age often brings soulful openings and insights, while demigods of the diamond face inevitable declines. The baseball immortals who fired my boyish adulation may have won louder cheers from bigger crowds in their prime, but music makers can make the glory last and regularly leave the scene in an uplifting trumpet blaze of imperishable late-inning glory.
In that regard, I wish this year's graduates an even more meaningful transition some 60 or 70 years from now, into what should be the most fulfilling and productive years of your lives.