Conlon’s Wagner detox transitions conductor for flexible CSO summer at Ravinia

Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 4:52 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Photo: Ravinia Festival

Summer festivals aren’t exactly vacation time for the performers who provide the music for audiences relaxing under the stars.

But when James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launch their 2010 Ravinia season Monday night, they might feel a distinct sense of slowing down. Both have just finished herculean projects. The CSO’s Beethoven Festival June 2 to 20 was a much-heralded sendoff for beloved principal conductor Bernard Haitink that included all nine Beethoven symphonies. And since late May Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera as well as Ravinia, has conducted three cycles of Wagner’s complete Ring of the Nibelung in Los Angeles. The city has never presented a fully integrated, four-opera Ring cycle before, and the buzz around the $31 million production had been fierce.

Like a smoker choosing to ease off rather than quit cold turkey, Conlon is bringing a bit of Los Angeles’ Wagner to Ravinia. On June 30 he leads the CSO in Ring excerpts including the Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung and the final scene of Siegfried. Conlon’s Siegfried in Los Angeles, tenor John Treleaven, will share the stage with soprano Christine Brewer.

“This is my detoxification,’’ Conlon said with a laugh during a phone interview between Ring cycles earlier this month. “The world stops [when you’re doing a Ring]. I’m very happy I’m coming to Ravinia because I get so excited working with the Chicago Symphony. It’s probably the best place for me to be to get over it. I thought one more Ring program with the Chicago Symphony should help me cope. If it weren’t something as exciting as Ravinia, I would probably be in bad shape afterwards.”

Achim Freyer’s production of the Ring, with its futuristic design, was controversial, and ticket sales were not as high as Los Angeles Opera officials had hoped. But more than 100 Ring-related events were held throughout the city, and audiences gave the performances standing ovations.

“It’s a high point. It doesn’t come around often, if at all,’’ said Conlon who has conducted Ring cycles in Germany. “It’s an enormous satisfaction to have built a Ring from the bottom up over several years. And it’s also given me enormous satisfaction to see a city really come together like that. The support and the interest in the city have been unbelievable.”

Conlon arrived at the Los Angeles Opera in 2006 with the goal of doing a complete Ring. When he became Ravinia’s music director in 2005, he also had a set of goals. One was to present all of Mahler’s symphonies over a number of seasons. On July 13 he leads the CSO in the Adagio movement from Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10.

“The Mahler cycle was of fundamental importance to me because of the equation: Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Gustav Mahler,” said Conlon. “They are the quintessential orchestra to be performing it. Knowing that 2011 [the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death] would be inundated everywhere with Mahler, we decided to do it differently—to get an early start and the perspective that went from the beginning to the end in correct order. That’s what we succeeded in doing.

“Mahler has been a part of my life since, I think, 1973 when I conducted my first Mahler symphony,” he continued. “This is the third time I’ve done a complete cycle with the same orchestra. It’s just about as fabulous as doing the Ring.”

Conlon, who celebrated his 60th birthday in March, estimates that he has led between 330 and 350 performances of Mahler symphonies. Asked how his approach has changed over the years, he said, “It’s very difficult to answer that question because you evolve. It happens so gradually and organically. Hopefully, you do evolve. You either get better or worse; if you’re standing still, you’re getting worse.”

At Ravinia, in addition to performing Mahler symphonies, Conlon has also focused on a project titled Breaking the Silence. The aim is to present music by gifted but lesser-known composers such as Alexander Zemlinsky and Viktor Ullmann whose careers were cut short or seriously impacted by the Holocaust. This summer the project is represented by just a single performance, July 27 in Martin Theatre. Working with T. Daniel Productions, an innovative Chicago-based mime company, Conlon will lead a chamber ensemble in Darius Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof). An antic dance and music piece from 1920, it was completed 20 years before Milhaud, who was Jewish, left his native France in the wake of the Nazis.

“We’ve had five seasons of a very strong presence,” said Conlon about Breaking the Silence. “It doesn’t have to be every year, but it does have to stay in everybody’s consciousness. This initiative will go on forever. At the end of my lifetime I won’t see the end of it. This has to be built gradually, over a generation.”

The CSO and a Beethoven cycle also will be part of Conlon’s Ravinia season this summer. The Chicago-based, Mexican-born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio will be the soloist in all five Beethoven piano concertos July 15 and 16 with the orchestra. Conlon wraps up his 2010 Ravinia season with a set of Mozart operas in the Martin Theatre with major soloists and a chamber-sized CSO. Cosi fan tutte with a cast including Frederica von Stade in her final opera performances in Chicago will be given Aug. 5 and 7. The Marriage of Figaro with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Nathan Gunn is scheduled Aug. 6 and 8.

“I’m delighted that the response was so positive,” said Conlon, referring to the pair of Mozart operas (Don Giovanni and The Abduction from the Seraglio) he conducted in the Martin Theatre in 2008, “and that everybody was willing to commit themselves to it again. There is no question that the Martin Theatre is ideal for the intimacy of those operas. It was very clear from the reaction both onstage and offstage that we should continue.”

Photo: Ravinia Festival

The CSO’s 21 Ravinia performances this summer are scattered among weekdays and weekends between June 28 and Aug. 15. Some devoted Ravinia fans remember the 1970s when gala CSO concerts launched each season or the 1990s when the CSO was the regular weekend-long attraction. For some of them, this season’s calendar is unsettling.

Welz Kauffman, Ravinia’s president and CEO, defends the schedule. The CSO regularly performed during the week for many of its seven-plus decades at Ravinia, he said. Stiff competition for an ever-dwindling number of big box-office draws is another consideration. Since some summer festivals such as Tanglewood cluster their orchestral concerts on the weekends, Kauffman considers Ravinia’s flexible CSO schedule a plus.

“When we had Bernard Haitink here a couple of years ago,’’ said Kauffman, “we could only get him on a Wednesday. (The CSO’s principal conductor made his belated Ravinia debut in 2008 with a memorable Mahler Sixth Symphony.) If Riccardo Muti ever decides to come back to Ravinia, which we would love and open our arms for, it could be 11 o’clock on a Sunday night and we’ll take it.”

Ravinia is celebrating Conlon’s 60th birthday this season, and he has seen massive changes on the music scene. Classical music has become a niche art, but Conlon actively fights the notion that it is only for a select few. Early in his career he hated the notion of conductors speaking to audiences. But now he gives a pre-opera talk every time he conducts in Los Angeles. Whenever he speaks from Ravinia’s podium, his comments are typically witty and graceful.

Conlon sees value in the video screens that Ravinia is using at every CSO concert. The idea is to give pavilion audiences a closer look at the performers and forge a closer connection between audience and orchestra. Some concertgoers loathe them, but Kauffman said the overall response has been positive.

“It was a big mistake,” said Conlon, “to have allowed classical music to fall out of public education, and we’re paying the price for it now. Anything that reverses this trend is a necessity.

“I can certainly understand the viewpoint of people who may not like those screens. But I think at this point in history, it’s outweighed by the necessity of winning people and keeping them, young people especially. People very much like seeing the orchestra.”

James Conlon will open the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season at the Ravinia Festival 8 p.m. Monday with an all-Chopin program featuring Garrick Ohlsson in both of the composer’s piano concertos.; 847-266-5100.

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