JAMES CONLON (b 1950 )
James Conlon first encountered classical music when the mother of a friend took the boys to the première of an amateur performance of Verdi’s La traviata. James went along reluctantly but, as he said later, he ‘…went three times in two months and was sold on music for life’. He told his parents he wanted to become a conductor and began to take piano and violin lessons. He studied at New York’s High School of Music and Art and in 1968 entered the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied conducting with the disciplined French maestro Jean Morel. His professional debut took place in 1971 at the Spoleto Opera Festival in Italy where he conducted Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
Conlon made his New York debut while still a student in February 1972, directing Puccini’s La Bohème at the Juilliard School as a protégé of Maria Callas, and two years later, at the invitation of Pierre Boulez, he was the youngest guest conductor in history to lead the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in several of its subscription series concerts. He conducted the first performance of the revised version of Samuel Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra in 1975 at Juilliard, and made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera the following year with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. During the same year he made his United Kingdom debut with Verdi’s Macbeth at Scottish Opera, to be followed by his Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, debut in 1979 with Verdi’s Don Carlos. The same year, he was invited to become the music director of the Cincinnati May Festival, the oldest choral music festival in the United States, in succession to James Levine. As director of this festival Conlon clearly enunciated his personal mission: ‘I remember how much classical music meant to me, as a child. And if I had any mission in America at all, the one that’s important to me is to use whatever personality I have to open that door to a lot of Americans who could love music, and who don’t yet.’
Henceforth James Conlon’s professional career was to be devoted equally to operatic, orchestral and choral music. He first appeared at the Paris Opera in 1982
conducting new productions of Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and in the following year took up the post of chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, which he held until 1991. With this orchestra he recorded works by Mozart, Weber, Liszt, Puccini, Bartók, Janáček, Stravinsky and Poulenc, and together they toured Western and Eastern Europe, the USA, Japan and Korea. During 1984 Conlon taught at the Juilliard School, in 1985 he opened the Maggio Musicale in Florence with Don Carlos, and in 1988 he made his first appearance with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, directing Verdi’s La forza del destino. His career took a further step forward in 1989 when, after making his local debut conducting a production by Harry Kupfer of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he became chief conductor of the Cologne Opera, assuming responsibility for the concerts of the Gürzenich Orchestra (the opera orchestra in concert-giving guise) the following year: he was the first person in forty-five years to combine both these positions. In 1993 he made his debut at La Scala, Milan with Weber’s Oberon.
A further advance was made in 1996 when, having served as music adviser for the previous season, he was appointed as chief conductor of the Paris Opera, relinquishing this post in 2004. Conlon’s view of his role in Paris is unusual but typically sensible: ‘I don’t want power. I do want musical responsibility but I don’t need total control. The best way to avoid this problem in Paris is to forget about control… I can work with the singers of my choice and I can set my own standards.’ In addition to his work in Paris, Cologne and Cincinnati, Conlon has appeared with virtually every major orchestra in the United States and Canada, including those of Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh and Washington DC. In Europe he has often appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, and the London Symphony Orchestras, the Orchestre National de Radio France, the Dresden Staatskapelle, and the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome.
James Conlon is a conductor of the first rank whose steady progress through the top-level opera houses and concert halls of Europe and America has occasionally resulted in his outstanding musicianship being taken for granted. This tendency has also been reinforced by his highly eclectic choice of repertoire for his recordings, which may not have thrust him in front of the general public. In addition to more familiar works such as the Symphony No. 5 of Mahler (EMI) (of whose music Conlon is an outstanding interpreter), he has recorded several major works by Mahler’s contemporaries and colleagues Franz Schreker and Alexander von Zemlinsky, and a number of works by other composers whose music was also outlawed by the Nazi government in Germany, such as Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann, as well as less well-known works by composers such as Max Bruch, Franz Liszt and Bohuslav Martinů. The operatic side of his career is represented by DVDs of productions such as those of Rossini’s Semiramide at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Cologne.
Several of Conlon’s recordings have won international awards, including the French Grand Prix du Disque and the German Schallplattenpreis. He has also collaborated with the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon on the latter’s examination of the relationship between music and drama in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo. Conlon’s interpretations are characterized by an ideal combination of dynamic personal vision and fidelity to the score. In the opera house his readings possess an innate sense of drama which gives his performances great authority, while in the concert hall his work is notable for its immaculate preparation and great technical discipline. Of his chosen profession James Conlon has commented, ‘Being a musician is not merely a profession, it is a way of life. It is a passion, a vocation, an obsession. It is a privilege and a scourge which brings great satisfactions and great torments. Classical music is a spiritual force. It inspires, uplifts, and invigorates; consoles and edifies; challenges us to confront our inner selves and our destinies.’ His performances do not disappoint.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).