James Conlon is in the midst of an early afternoon rehearsal when he pauses to fix a line that doesn’t sound quite right to him. “Don’t rush the staccato,” he tells the chorus. “Staccato is about the space in-between the notes.”
Later that same day, in front of a chamber orchestra this time, he’s rehearsing again. It is the fourth different group with whom he’s working in just a six-hour span. After going through a long passage, he stops to make some adjustments, including this suggestion to the strings: “Breathe. Pizzicato is about the space in-between the notes.” They play again, and this time, the music pops in a way it hadn’t before.
A conductor using a similar phrase when rehearsing two different groups of musicians may not be particularly noteworthy. Except that on this day, the chorus is a middle-school girls choir and the chamber orchestra is comprised of college students. And the day itself, November 22, 2013, is Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday.
James Conlon — Music Director of Los Angeles Opera and globe-trotting maestro — has been THE dynamo powering the “Britten 100/LA” festival, a celebration of the iconic British composer that began early in 2013 and reaches its zenith later this month with performances of Billy Budd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Rather than spend the actual 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth with a big-name opera company or orchestra in some splashy high-priced gala with those already worshiping at the altar of Britten, he continued to evangelize about this music to people outside the elite, include many who probably could never make it to Downtown L.A. for a major opera performance.
It was a jam-packed day, full of rehearsals and performances of two separate free concerts in very different neighborhoods of L.A., with Mr. Conlon conducting an unlikely mix of grade-school children to conservatory-aged musicians and a community choir in the process. All of this, with relatively minimal fanfare, in honor of Benjamin Britten.
I had the privilege of being asked to spend the whole day with Mr. Conlon. I brought photographer Brandise Danesewich along with me to help document the day. Together, we had a unique opportunity on this very special day: to not only sit in on rehearsals and watch performances, but also to observe him, to listen to conversations others may not normally hear, and to chat with him (when time permitted).
Brandise and I are in the parking lot of Saint James’ in the City, the Los Angeles church at which our evening will end more than 12 hours from now. Bill Gorin, longtime personal assistant to James Conlon and our driver today, meets us there. “Are you ready? It’s going to be a long day, we’ll be pretty much non-stop,” he says. “But this is pretty much par for the course for James.”
He asks if we remembered to pack some food since the schedule will be so tight it’s unlikely we’ll be able to stop for food. I reassure him that we’ve got granola bars and bottles of water and green tea, and we’re off.
Brandise and I sit in a car outside of James Conlon’s home in a nice but relatively modest part of Los Angeles’s Mid-City neighborhood. Bill has just gone into the house to let his boss know we’ve arrived. Within about five minutes, the two of them walk up to the car and Mr. Conlon greets us. “Let’s have some fun today,” he says. “Hopefully you won’t think I’m too dull.”
We were given no ground rules or boundaries by Los Angeles Opera going into the day, and I ask if he has any limits or concerns. He replies rather cheerily, “No, I don’t think so. Ask whatever you want.”
James Conlon tweetingWe get into the car and immediately, the maestro begins to work. “I usually drive myself places – in fact, I really enjoy driving around L.A. Today’s just a little different.“ He pulls out some Britten scores and puts them on his lap before remembering that he’s supposed to send off some tweets, apologizing as he begins to use his cell phone.
“My daughter, Luisa, was the first to try to get me on Twitter. Then, Christopher [Koelsch]and Diane [Rhodes Bergman] gave me what amounted to a stern lecture about using social media more,” he says with a chuckle, referring to LA Opera’s CEO and VP of Marketing & PR. “And Shannita, whom I love, really got me going,” giving major props to Los Angeles Opera’s social media maven, Shannita Williams.
Luisa Conlon would tell me later in the day, “He’s kind of modest and doesn’t understand why everyone would be interested in what he’s thinking and doing.”
After posting some thoughts to the Twitterverse, he looks through the sheet music – Simple Symphony, Friday Afternoons, and others – in between checking with Bill on various questions and issues that pop into his head.
Traffic down the 10 Freeway is remarkably civil, and in a fairly short time, we arrive at the Jonathan Club’s beach club in Santa Monica, the venue for the day’s first event: “A Britten Birthday Bash.”
We’re assisted by the club’s young and very neatly groomed staff as they usher us into the building. The exclusive locale is normally only open to members and their guests; however, the Jonathan Club is one of the partners of the event, and on this day, anyone interested in attending would get a free chance to experience Britten’s music in this elegant setting.
Mr. Conlon gets his first look of the day at the room in which he’ll be conducting.
“You know, we originally had wanted to do the concert outside, right on the beach. Very relaxed and accessible. But there were challenges with the acoustics, and someone reminded me that the odds for rain in November are better than normal.” He laughs as he looks at the picture-postcard blue sky outside. “I think it’s going to work great in here.”
Chris Allen-Ignazio Terrasi-James Conlon before rehearsal
Two of Mr. Conlon’s musical assistants walk into the room. He sees Ignazio Terrasi, the most senior of the three and greets him with, “Buon giorno,” before shooting off some rapid-fire questions to him in fluent Italian. The two begin conversing and quickly walk off together to check some other details.
I meet the other musical assistant, Chris Allen. He tells me, “This may seem like a packed day, but this is normal for him. He’s non-stop, like the Energizer bunny.”
The first rehearsal of the day is underway. All of the musicians for this first concert are students of Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, the local public school system where music education is as much a mandatory part of the curriculum as math, science, history, or language arts.
Three of the district’s ensembles will be performing: first, Santa Monica Elementary Schools’ Fifth Grade Chorus, followed by the Combined Women’s Chorus of John Adams and Lincoln Middle Schools, and finally, the Santa Monica High School Chamber Orchestra. In an effort to maximizing efficiency, they rehearse in reverse order, minimizing the requirements on the youngest of the groups (i.e., those with the shortest attention spans).
James Conlon rehearsing SMThat means that the Chamber Orchestra is the first to work with Mr. Conlon. They run through Simple Symphony from start to finish. When they’re done, the conductor offers politely, “Do you want to hear my suggestions?” The young musicians giggle a bit at being asked, as if they’d actually say no.
He goes over very specific details he wants changed. The chamber orchestra, the most prestigious of the instrumental groups at SMHS, responds without trouble. This is clearly a very talented ensemble, and the musicians are attentive when the star conductor makes corrections. Perhaps because of this, Mr. Conlon seems very willing to push them, asking for subtle changes in dynamics and phrasing. But he is never dogmatic. Corrections – er, “suggestions,” as he refers to them – are offered collegially, without any hint of intimidation.
With the chamber orchestra rehearsal done, the stage crew is in the midst of preparing the performance area for the choral rehearsals. During that time, the conductor takes a moment to greet his daughter, Luisa, before jumping on a laptop to write a blog post for Musical America.
On this day at least, the space in-between James Conlon’s notes is always filled to the brim. And if everyone is to be believed, this day is pretty typical.
The first choral rehearsal, this one with the middle school girls, begins promptly. The group is relatively large, barely fitting on the risers, and the young ladies are not quite settled in. Mr. Conlon gives the first downbeat for A Ceremony of Carols, and the choir begins singing, but with some shyness.
After only a few measures, he stops. “I want to hear you. More. More, please,” he asks gently but directly.
A view through the harpAnother downbeat is given, and this time the girls sing out. As the rehearsal continues, the conductor spends a little less time on specific details, focusing more on entrances, cutoffs, and balances. “More altos,” he requests during one passage of “This little Babe.” Elsewhere, he asks them to repeat the end of a phrase multiple times, making sure that they give the final vowel its full note value before dropping out.
By the end of the rehearsal, the middle schoolers sing with more confidence, sounding quite good in the process.
There is some confusion as to whether or not to include the Interlude, which features a solo harp and no singing. Mr. Conlon hadn’t planned on it, but Alison Bjorkedal, the excellent harpist for Southwest Chamber Music as well as many other local ensembles, had prepared it. After some discussion, the Interlude is in.
Afterwards, with Mr. Conlon and young ladies’ chorus posing for pictures, you can hear in the background the din of 200 or so 5th graders as they assemble outside for their turn to rehearse. Soon, the youngest of the choirs begins filing into the room with all of the barely-contained exuberance you’d expect from elementary-school children.
“QUIT IT!!” one unseen voice screeches out.
The adults in the room all look at each other with a combined sense of amusement and trepidation: the maestro may have his hands full.
James Conlon and Alison Bjorkedal with middle school chorus
Mr. Conlon is deep in the middle of rehearsing Friday Afternoons with the 5th grade choir, who are acquitting themselves quite well, thank you very much.
There is something absolutely fascinating about watching these children. Before singing each song in Friday Afternoons, a buzz of chatter emanates from the large group. It’s as if they’re distracted, not paying attention to or caring about what’s going on. But the moment a downbeat is given, they lock in and begin singing at full voice with a naivety and charmingly imperfect blend that can’t help but bring a smile to someone’s face.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s one of their teachers warming them up with a series of “bumble bee-ee bumble bee-ee” warm-up scales, or a world-class conductor rehearsing with them: when it’s time to sing, they throw themselves into their singing. It’s a great example of the power of music with children.
That said, this is less a rehearsal and more a run-through. Mr. Conlon offers a small handful of suggestions as they traverse the twelve songs that make up this particular collection, but in general, he doesn’t do much correcting of anything he hears. He makes sure they start when he wants to start, follow the tempos he sets, and end when he gives the cut-offs, and that’s about it.
The whole time, he smiles. Others might be exhausted dealing with 200 elementary school students. Mr. Conlon appears to be taking it in stride.
Kimberlea Daggy as emceeThe room is packed. The 5th grade chorus on the floor risers, the middle school girls in the balcony, and parents in the seats holding cell phones and video cameras aloft as they anxiously wait to see their children perform the music of Britten.
Kimberlea Daggy, the emcee and project coordinator for this “Britten Birthday Bash,” welcomes everyone to the concert, and introduces Mr. Conlon.
The concert begins . . .
It’s the first break in the performance. The 5th grade choir (with some assistance from the middle school girls) has just finished singing Friday Afternoons and are slowly filing offstage. Mr. Conlon takes the chance to tell the audience about Benjamin Britten, and how much the composer loved to create music that performers of any age or experience level and sing and appreciate. He points out that choirs across the globe are singing Friday Afternoons in celebration of 100th birthday of Britten and, as luck would have it, this day happens to be a Friday.
Eventually, the risers are cleared and the young ladies of John Adams and Lincoln Middle Schools are given their chance to perform A Ceremony of Carols, and they sound lovely. Ms. Bjorkedal plays the Interlude with beauty and grace.
The room is reset again, and Ryan Roberts eloquently plays the Six Metamorphoses After Ovid for solo oboe. Finally, the Santa Monica High School Chamber Orchestra get their chance to perform Simple Symphony after patiently waiting in an upstairs room for many hours. They sound great, with intonation and blend rivaling some college ensembles I’ve heard.
Not everyone is a fan of the politics of what some pointedly refer to as “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica,” but clearly, their progressive — perhaps even aggressive – approach to music in the public schools is working wonders.
Everyone involved looks very happy, and with good reason: all the groups of young musicians performed very well. Many parents in the audience remark how unfamiliar with Britten’s music they were before this concert, and how surprised they were to have enjoyed all of it.
Joel Bellman, a deputy in the office of L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, is on hand to present Mr. Conlon with a proclamation from the County in honor Britten’s birthday, the Britten 100/LA Celebration, and the conductor’s leadership.
James Conlon with LA County proclamationAt the post-concert reception, the maestro is swarmed by parents and children eager to meet him. He looks genuinely happy to chat with everyone, shaking countless hands and smiling for many photographs — even a selfie or two.
He could probably go on for a while, but his assistant, Bill Gorin, is worried that if we don’t leave soon, we’ll hit some horrendous rush hour traffic on The 10 freeway as we try to get back to St. James’ church near Koreatown for the evening rehearsals and performance.
Bill makes multiple polite attempts to get his boss out the door. Finally, at about five minutes before 4pm, he quietly tells him, “James, we really have to go or else we’re going to be late. I’ve got some sushi for you to eat in the car.”
With that, the maestro apologizes as he disengages himself from a conversation, and we walk out the door…