Internationally known conductor Stephen Simon, a specialist in the music of George Frideric Handel and former music director of the Washington Chamber Symphony at the Kennedy Center, died Sunday, January 20, 2013 in New York. He was co-founder of Maestro Classics™, an award-winning enterprise designed to introduce children to classical music. He was 75.
Maestro Simon spearheaded the Handel revival in the 1970s and 80s. As Music Director of the Handel Society of New York at Carnegie Hall (1971-74), he created modern performing editions of little-known Handel works, conducting many of their American premieres, including Alexander Balus, Sosarme, and Aci, Galatea, e Poliferno.
Simon’s recordings of Handel’s oratorios and operas won wide acclaim, including a Grammy Award nomination for Best Choral Recording in 1971. After his appointment as Music Director of the Handel Festival Orchestra at the Kennedy Center (1976-88), he continued his work, recording Handel’s operas Ariodante and Orlando and the oratorios Judas Maccabaeus and highlights from Athalia for RCA Victor. He established the Handel Festival at the Kennedy Center and took his Handel Festival Orchestra on tour to Europe and the Northeast, receiving rave reviews. For many years, he was a regular guest conductor at the Handel Festival in Halle, Germany, Handel’s birthplace.
In his role as Music Director and Conductor of the Washington Chamber Symphony (1989 -2002), Simon brought a varied repertoire and joyful new interpretations of known and unknown works, treating audiences to Beethoven symphonies with Beethoven-sized orchestras and introducing new works that proved contemporary music could provide a pleasant and thrilling listening experience. His numerous innovative and energetic performances also resurrected forgotten symphonies by composers such as Clementi and Voricek, "the Czech Mozart.”
During his years at the Kennedy Center, he and his wife Bonnie Ward Simon also created a highly successful series of Concerts for Young People, which enjoyed over a decade of sold-out performances, educating and delighting children, parents and grandparents alike. Additional highlights during these years included his popular annual Holiday Sing-Along, as well as “Viva Vivaldi!” (1998-2001), a series of national competitions for young female musicians that re-created Vivaldi’s all-girl orchestra.
As an outgrowth of his programming for young people at the Kennedy Center, Simon and his wife created Maestro Classics™, a company that produced a series of eleven CDs designed to introduce children ages 5-12 to the joys of classical music. Among the titles, all of which included delightful compositions and arrangements by Simon, were The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale). These recordings, with Simon conducting the London Philharmonic, have received more than fifty awards from national parenting organizations.
Additional noteworthy recordings by Simon include The Complete Mozart Piano Concerti with the legendary Mme. Lili Kraus as the soloist for CBS/SONY, and the award-winning Complete Beethoven Piano Concerti with pianist Anthony Newman performing on the fortepiano of the period with an orchestra of original instruments for Newport Classics.
Simon’s passion for music grew from early childhood. He fondly recalled listening to the great church organists of Manhattan on Sunday mornings. Encouraged in his piano studies by his mother, Esther “Aye” Annenberg Simon, he went on to attend Oberlin College, received his Bachelors in Music from Yale School of Music, and studied conducting with the legendary Josef Krips in San Francisco.
Simon’s mother was the oldest daughter of Moses L. Annenberg and the sister of publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg. She served on the board of Carnegie Hall and was a long-time supporter of major cultural institutions in New York City. She instilled in her son Stephen a love of art, music, and philanthropy. He, too, was well-known for his generosity and support of cultural causes. Above all, he will be remembered for his efforts to promote and showcase emerging young musicians.
Many people will also fondly recall Simon as the Music Director of The County Symphony in Westchester, NY where, for two decades beginning in 1970, he conducted A Summer of Music on the Hudson, a concert series at the Jay Gould estate, Lyndhurst, in Tarrytown, NY.
On several occasions Simon was invited to conduct the National Gallery of Art Orchestra in Washington, DC. Among the unusual programs he created there was a concert commemorating the great portrait artist Gilbert Stuart, where he premiered his own arrangement of three movements from Richard Bales’ Music of the Revolution for full orchestra and glass harmonica. Simon also guest conducted in Europe, Canada, and Israel.
Simon recently founded two new orchestras, The Simon Sinfonietta in Falmouth, MA, where he enjoyed conducting for nine seasons, and l’Orchestre des Portes Rouges, a small chamber orchestra in New York City, whose aim was to bring lesser-known orchestral works to the music-loving public.
Simon was a beloved figure in Woods Hole, MA, where he and his family maintained a summer residence for many years. He is survived by his wife Bonnie Ward Simon and their two sons, Basil and Sebastian; four sons, Daniel, James, Adam and David, from his previous marriage to Ellen Friendly Simon; and four grandchildren.