James Conlon Sees His Time at Ravinia as a Continuous Highlight

In looking back over my years at Ravinia, it is almost impossible to gather my thoughts in a linear fashion. The memories are so many; the musical experiences so rich, varied and exciting; the immense presence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra so monumental, that it is difficult to condense into words.

Since I became music director of the CSO’s residency in 2005, I have been struck by how many music lovers I have met around the country and even overseas, who have told me that they heard their first concerts at Ravinia. I began joking that perhaps everyone grew up north of Chicago, and that they had all gone to Ravinia as children.

Gustav Mahler’s music has been identified with the CSO for at least half a century. Having grown up during the Bernstein years in New York City, I was exposed to Mahler early. My generation in America is perhaps the first who grew up in an age when Mahler was already a fully accepted presence in concert life. As a young adult, I watched and participated as his music went from present to omnipresent.

From the time I attended the CSO’s famous (1970) performance of the Fifth Symphony with Georg Solti, I dreamt of conducting Mahler with them. It is not an accident that, when given the opportunity to first conduct at Ravinia, I chose Mahler’s First Symphony; nor is it an accident that it heads up my programs this season. When I planned the Mahler symphony cycle as a central part of my first years as music director at Ravinia, it was designed to go in order and conclude in 2011, the 100th anniversary of his death. At the beginning of the cycle in 2005, I had already conducted five of his symphonies at Ravinia (two as a part of the single-season cycle spearheaded by James Levine in 1979) as well as Das Lied von der Erde and the first performance in CSO history of Das klagende Lied. Of the more than 400 Mahler performances I have led throughout the world, my cycle with the CSO will always remain at the apex.

The two Mozart cycles—the complete piano concertos and six of his principal operas (my one regret is that La Clemenza di Tito eluded us)—also comprised a central part of these years, though, of course, those weren’t the only works represented. In addition to some symphonies (that one can never conduct enough of) and violin and wind concertos, the performances of Mozart’s wind serenades stand out in my memory. But the absolute zenith for me was the transformation of the Martin Theatre into a semi-staged opera venue, featuring the CSO center stage and the best troupes of Mozart singers available.

As a part of a greater effort, I wished to significantly raise awareness among classical music lovers of the enormous volume of rarely performed, if not completely unknown, music by composers whose lives and fortunes were negatively impacted by the Nazi regime, introducing symphonic, operatic, and chamber music in both the Pavilion and the Martin Theatre as much as possible. For the first five years of my directorship, each season focused on an individual composer; in order they were Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff (both of whom died in camps), Alexander Zemlinsky (who emigrated to the US), Franz Schreker, and Kurt Weill (concentrating on his early German period). Thereafter the series continued in the Martin Theatre with a mix of compositions linked by the turbulent history of the mid-twentieth century—chamber music, works for singers and small orchestra, even two dance evenings—all drawn from composers who were either murdered, banned, banished, or forced into exile. The attendant list is long, but we were able to include Adolph Busch, Hanns Eisler, Wilhelm Grosz, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa, and Darius Milhaud.

The opportunity to discuss this subject from the Martin Theatre stage gratified me. Combined with all the visual aids that became part of these concerts, these talks gave me an opportunity to share my thoughts on this music and the necessity of its revival. The audience may have been small compared to Ravinia’s hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, but large in its intellectual curiosity and its fierce loyalty. I am grateful to those who were among them.

To name particular artists with whom I have shared the stage would be to exclude others; to reminisce about who played what concerto and sang which opera would be to mix and blur hundreds of memories. In the end, for me, the overwhelming image (and sound) of Ravinia is that of the CSO and, on those occasions when they participated, the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Are there any performances that have a special memory for me? Again Mahler springs immediately to mind, via his Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies, as well as Verdi’s Requiem, the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, “Siegfried’s Funeral March” and the final scenes of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the Mozart operas, the Shostakovich symphonies—when I start thinking about it, the memories multiply. I’ve probably already gone too far. It is best left unqualified. The collective memories are greater than the sum of their parts.

I am grateful to several persons who brought and kept Ravinia in my life. First and foremost to James Levine, who first encouraged me to visit and attend rehearsals and performances in 1974— and first invited me to guest conduct in 1977; to Welz Kauffman and the entire Ravinia family for placing their confidence in me by asking me to become music director; and to his predecessor, Zarin Mehta, whose friendship, support, and love of music over the years has been very meaningful. And I reserve a special place for that very special, extraordinary individual who was the heart of Ravinia for so many years, and who supported me at the beginning, Ed Gordon.

I have written this essay looking backwards, whereas my focus is on the moment, with an eye to the future. The rear-view mirror is helpful when deciding the right moment to change lanes.

I value long-term relationships and friendships, musical as well as personal. In a world driven by short-term interests, shifting loyalties, zigzagging career advancements, and superficial attachments, I stand by my choices to build associations with orchestras and musical institutions on a long-term basis, whether as a music director or as a guest. I have preferred longevity to the short term. With the symphony orchestras, opera houses, and festivals of which I have been music director, the shortest tenure was eight years and the longest 37.

It is now 38 years since I first conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a guest at Ravinia, and I have now served as its music director for 11 years. The festival has been a source of inspiration, immense musical pleasure, and personal satisfaction. I have conducted one of the world’s greatest orchestras, surrounded by a beautiful park, sustained by a large extended family of loyal supporters and a public of all ages.

I am grateful for that privilege and for the years spent in your midst.

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