James Conlon has had no shortage of milestone appointments and departures in his distinguished 45-year conducting career, from his 1983 hiring to oversee the Rotterdam Philharmonic to his decision in 2011 to step down as principal conductor of the Paris National Opera. But no period in his life has been a bigger time of transition than now.
Last August, Conlon revealed that 2015 would be his final year as music director of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill., where he has spent 11 years leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during its annual summer residency. (His performances there will run July 22 through Aug. 15.) Then, in February, the maestro made a second major announcement, saying that he would step down in 2016 after 37 years as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival, the oldest continuously operating choral festival in the United States.
But what did those impending changes mean? Was the 65-year maestro, who recently conducted his 100th different opera, planning to slow down? The answer came soon enough with the news in early June that the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai (RAI National Symphony Orchestra) in Turin, Italy had chosen Conlon as its principal conductor – the first American to hold the position in the ensemble’s 84-year-history. The appointment, which begins in 2016-17, calls for Conlon to lead eight weeks of programs, including tours, recordings, concert operas, and choral works. He is hardly taking much of a step back in terms of work load, considering that he will also remain at the Los Angeles Opera, where he has been music director since 2006, and continue his extensive guest conducting.
The Italian post marks Conlon’s return to Europe in a prominent position after an 11-year absence. A conductor of Conlon’s caliber would seem to have had his choice of orchestra posts, and he said this one made sense for several reasons, including his affinity for all things Italian and the chemistry he has felt with the Turin musicians since his first guest conducting appearance with them in 2009.
“Circumstances and timing play a role in everything,” he said. “It is ironic that I have been coming to Italy for over 40 years, since I first conducted here, and love Italy probably more than any other place in the world and have a host of – five, six, seven – orchestras and opera companies where I come and go as a guest, but I’ve never had a post here. And, suddenly, there it was. This one was so obvious.”
“You shouldn’t stay too long,” Conlon said by phone between rehearsals at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. “I have other things on my mind at this point in life, and that’s pretty much what it is. I’m looking to the future. I think it’s time for some changes.”
Although the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai is not exactly a household name in the United States, it is one of the world’s leading radio orchestras. The official ensemble of Rai (Radiotelevisione Italiana), the Italian public broadcasting network, it was restructured in 1994 when the radio orchestras of Turin, Rome, Milan, and Naples were merged into one ensemble. “The orchestra is probably the most respected institution in classical music, certainly in the orchestral world, in Italy,” Conlon said. “It has been there as a top-of-the-line symphony orchestra for more than my lifetime.”
Often at his best in works that involve the human voice, Conlon is a wide-ranging, constantly curious conductor who likes to unearth little-known works, especially from the 20th century. He has been criticized for not bringing a little more of that adventuresome spirit to his repertoire at Ravinia, but he has said that a summer festival of that kind is not the place for “hard-core, avant-garde music.”
Asked to cite some of the highlights of his music directorship at Ravinia, Conlon demurred. “It’s not that there was or is a highlight,” he said. “It is the consistent, high level of performance of the Chicago Symphony – the excitement of that and the fact that that excitement comes night after night, year after year. That’s what stands out.” But when pressed, the conductor conceded that his presentation of the complete cycle of Mahler symphonies during a five-year period at the festival was one of his proudest accomplishments.
For his final season at Ravinia, Conlon has put together what he calls a “mini-retrospective” of concerts, incorporating some of the “themes and motives” that were important during his tenure:
July 22, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. This program pays tribute to Conlon’s presentation of the complete sets of Mahler symphonies and Mozart piano concertos. It is also a repetition of one of the two line-ups during his first weekend as a guest conductor at the festival in 1977.
July 23, All-Russian program including Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Russian music played a large role in Conlon’s Ravinia concerts as it does in all of his music-making. He noted that he conducted Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera in November, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina at the Mariinsky Theatre in May, and Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades at the Rome Opera in June.
July 29, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid). This encore performance of the little-known tone poem, which Conlon first brought to Ravinia in 2007, is a reminder of his much-lauded efforts there and elsewhere to bring to light works that were suppressed during the Nazi regime.
Aug. 1, Annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular, including the 1812 Overture and excerpts from Swan Lake. “I actually love to do that concert,” Conlon said, “even though I know with the 1812 Overture it’s considered something that is terribly populist. But the older I get, the more I love Tchaikovsky, and I’m obsessed right now with Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades). I mean obsessed – day and night.”
Aug. 15, The Flying Dutchman. Well known as an opera conductor, Conlon has presented many concert versions of operatic masterworks at Ravinia, but never one by Wagner. “It does check off a box that we had left unchecked, which is a full Wagner opera,” he said.
Leaving Ravinia will be bittersweet, Conlon said, because of the board members, music lovers, and staff members he has befriended there. “I love all those people, but I don’t imagine that it’s the last time I’ll see them,” he said. He is not saying good-bye to the Chicago Symphony, which he is already scheduled to guest conduct Dec. 17-19 at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. He will lead a program of unusual works, including two tone poems by Dvořák that received their American premieres in Chicago in 1897 and 1899 and the orchestra’s first performances of Czech composer Jan Křtitel Vaňhal’s Double Bass Concerto in D major.
Conlon admits that his age did play into his recent career decisions, especially his desire to spend more time in Italy. “If you ask, ‘Why now? What’s changing?’” he said, “yeah, I’ve gotten to an age where I realize that you shouldn’t put off things you want to do. And for years, I’ve thought to myself, ‘I would really like to spend more time planted in Italy.’ I keep it putting off, and at a certain point, you realize you shouldn’t put things off indefinitely because you’ll never do them.”
Also figuring into the changes was a desire for greater flexibility in his schedule and more time to do other things, including writing a book. He declined to say what the tome will be about, but made clear that it is not a memoir. “I don’t think it’s time for memoirs just yet,” he said.