Europe-bound, James Conlon departs Ravinia after 11 years with no regrets

Mon Jul 20, 2015 at 12:38 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

James Conlon opens his final season as music director of the Ravania Festival Wednesday night with music of Mozart and Mahler.
James Conlon opens his final season as music director of the Ravinia Festival Wednesday night with music of Mozart and Mahler.

James Conlon certainly fits the profile of the jet-setting modern maestro. Music director of the Ravinia Festival since 2005, he has racked up countless airline miles in a distinguished career that takes him to the world’s major opera houses, concert halls and festivals.

But to an unusual extent, the 65-year-old conductor, who closes his 11-year tenure at Ravinia this season, has concentrated his energy either in Europe or the U.S. From the mid-1980s through the early 2000s, the New York native made his base in Europe—at the Rotterdam Philharmonic, heading both the opera house and the principal orchestra in Cologne, and as principal conductor of the Paris Opera, a notably long and relatively untroubled tenure for that famously fractious house.

Then in the mid-2000s, Conlon’s focus shifted to the U. S.

One year after arriving at Ravinia, he became music director of the Los Angeles Opera. His daughters, Luisa and Emma, now 26 and 17, were school-aged. The time seemed right, he said then, for Conlon and his wife, soprano Jennifer Ringo, to make the U. S. their home base.

Now a European post beckons again. In 2016 Conlon will become principal conductor of Italy’s Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin. In February he announced that, after nearly 40 years at the Cincinnati May Festival, he will give his final performances as music director there in 2016. He will remain onboard at Los Angeles Opera, however. His current contract runs through 2017-18, and he doesn’t expect his duties in Turin to interfere with his LA commitments.

“Frankly, I miss Europe,” said Conlon during a phone conversation last month from Italy where he was conducting Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades at the Rome Opera and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Spoleto Festival. “Jennifer misses Europe, even the girls miss Europe. So I thought it was very important to have a base in Europe as well. I’ll continue on with Los Angeles and I’ll have Turin.”

Conlon wraps up his Ravinia duties this summer with five CSO concerts beginning Wednesday night with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with soloist Garrick Ohlsson. The conductor’s final Ravinia programs offer a condensed overview of the composers and music he has championed at the festival. Since 2005 he has scheduled all of Mozart’s piano concertos and worked his way through Mahler’s complete symphonies.

Wednesday’s program has special meaning for Conlon.

“My first weekend at Ravinia,” he said, “as a guest conductor in 1977, I conducted the Mahler First Symphony and John Browning in the piano concerto.”

Conlon is a tireless advocate for composers whose music was suppressed by the Nazis, and he conducts Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Mermaid, an orchestral work from 1905 inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Mermaid, on July 29. He continues Ravinia’s long operatic tradition with a concert version of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman August 15.

Conlon’s traversal of semi-staged Mozart operas in the Martin Theatre, Ravinia’s intimate jewel box, was one of his most memorable festival projects. Beginning in 2008, he presided over four performances of two Mozart operas every other year, a series that included Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Idomeneo.

Opera has a glorious history at Ravinia, a destination for the world’s major opera stars in the 1920s. Conlon’s Mozart series, with a reduced contingent of CSO players onstage, burnished that legacy. Deftly staged, the productions were vibrant showcases for the CSO, which sparkled under Conlon’s direction, and casts that included gifted newcomers and established stars like Nathan Gunn and John Relyea.

“Those certainly will remain as one of my favorite memories of Ravinia,” said Conlon.

Welz Kauffman, Ravinia’s president and CEO who brought Conlon onboard as music director, emphatically agrees.

“Highlights [of Conlon’s tenure]? I have three words for you—Mozart, Mozart and Mahler,” said Kauffman.

“The piano concerto cycle was to die for. His desire to do that–believing as he does that the piano concertos are mini-operas and full of drama and passion, arias and recitatives—was then proven by going to the Martin Theatre and bringing an Abduction from the Seraglio, an Idomeneo, a Giovanni. And then to do a Mahler cycle over seven years, for us to be able to savor it and do other programs around it, that was just absolutely great.”

Conlon may be leaving his post as Ravinia’s music director, but the CSO still figures in his plans.

“This is not the end of my relationship with the CSO at all,” he said. “I’ll be back as a guest with the CSO in subscription concerts in December.” Conlon said he and Kauffman haven’t discussed plans for return engagements at Ravinia.

With his new Italian post, Conlon will be settling into a job that fulfills one aspect of a long-held dream. Founded in 1931 as the resident orchestra of Italy’s public radio network, Turin’s Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai has a wide reach. In addition to concerts in its home theater, the orchestra tours regularly and its repertoire includes chamber music and an annual series featuring contemporary works and world premieres.

“It’s no secret,” said Conlon, “I love Italy, but it’s been all these years and I’ve never held a position [there]. This is an orchestra that has probably the oldest and most unique history as a symphonic orchestra [in Italy], since the 1930s. They have a lot of interesting things that you can do and will do. Everything is broadcast; now everything is streamed. It’s a great situation for me.”

Conlon has long dreamed about living in Italy. Musing about his jam-packed life in an interview for Ravinia’s 2007 program book, he talked about retreating to the land of Verdi and DaVinci.

“My fantasy is that [someday] I’ll stop completely,” he said, “bring my studio of books, which I’ve accumulated over a lifetime, to some beautiful place that I love, like Italy, and sit there and read my books and look at my artwork….That’s my escapist fantasy.”

Living in Italy may now be a reality, but Conlon will not while away his hours reading books. He will deal with the inevitable pleasures and challenges facing anyone who takes up a new post. In a press release announcing his appointment, the Orchestra Sinfonica’s artistic director, Cesare Mazzonis, praised Conlon as “talented, sensible, strong and reasonable.”

That reasonableness served him well at Ravinia. He isn’t interested in cataloguing programs he didn’t have the time or opportunity to do during the past 11 seasons.

“That’s like asking a kid, ‘What would you like to have in your candy shop?’ I can name one hundred things that I could do, would do,” said Conlon. “You can only do a fraction of what you imagine. Practicalities are what they are, not just at Ravinia, but everywhere.

“So I have no regrets, just lots of gratitude.  I have loved these years. I’m doing what I wanted to do in life. I’m still able to do it, healthy enough to do it and I’m very grateful for that. “

James Conlon leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with soloist Garrick Ohlsson 8 p.m. Wednesday.

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