Features

James Conlon Muses on Life on the Podium and the Power of Music

By Lisa Houston San Francisco Classical Voice
June 1, 2016

Conductor James Conlon comes to the podium in San Francisco this month to lead the Symphony in Dvořák, Mozart, and Britten. Conlon has held long tenures at the Paris National Opera and the symphonies of Cologne, Rotterdam, and the Ravinia Festival. His current post as music director of the Los Angeles Opera will be paired in the coming season with his new appointment as principal conductor of Italy’s prestigious RAI, the national symphony of Italy.

Conlon’s work performing and promoting works previously suppressed by the Nazi regime has earned him awards including the Crystal Globe Award from the Anti-Defamation League. This work reflects his deep commitment to go beyond what he has called a common preconception these days, the idea that “if someone hasn’t heard of it, it can’t be any good.” 

Our conversation began with me asking the maestro what responsibilities he has leading a company in 2016 that folks didn’t have back in 1974, when he started.

I think that depends where you are. Mind you I didn’t have an orchestra in 1974. I was just beginning my career, so I spent about ten years just being a guest. This one here, in Cincinnati (the May Festival) was my first music directorship, but my first orchestra I didn’t take until 1983 and that was in Rotterdam.

I took all of my principal positions in Europe. In America I think the biggest, absolute number one issue is reconstituting your audience. Everywhere. We have lost ground. People don’t like to say that. But we have lost ground gradually since the 1980s. I attribute a lot of that to the abandonment of classical music appreciation in the schools.

We have a great paradox in America. I would say we have more great orchestras, certainly among the greatest opera companies and we have conservatories where we’re producing an extraordinary level of students. A far higher level than when I was in conservatory. We have an extraordinary supply. What has atrophied is the demand. I’m not talking about music education for professionals. I’m talking about music as a part of everybody’s education. I went through the New York City school system. No special anything. And from the time I can remember, there were music appreciation classes, and we all played the tonette, whether we wanted to or not. [Laughs.] There were bands, string orchestras, there were choruses. That was the norm. And then everything changed in the 1980s and funding was cut and a new attitude came along: If you want to do that, you have to do it on your own.

Classical music can be a part of absolutely everybody’s lives, if they’re exposed to it when they’re young. I don’t believe in an elite, this is music for certain people. If they’re exposed as many used to be exposed when they were young, it’s very natural. You start going to concerts when you’re young, you continue going as an adult. That’s the big challenge. The diminishing of the audience is a very serious problem for the health of our society. It’s something that should be there. We, the cultural institutions, are stuck with a problem that we did not essentially create, but we have to solve it, because nobody else is going to solve it. And so everybody’s working at it. The San Francisco Symphony has done a great deal, and people are reacting, but we have a big job. I don’t think we should be satisfied until we’ve reconstituted what we’ve lost.

The Recovered Voices series in L.A. is one example of your work bringing awareness to composers impacted by the Nazi regime, including an opera composed in the concentration camp, Terezin. What is it like for you emotionally to perform a piece of repertoire created under such extreme duress?

It’s hard to say it’s distinct from any other music making. I came into this subject not because I made a decision: I’m going to look into this. I heard some music, one piece specifically but then it grew outward, of Alexander Zemlinsky. That started everything. Early ’90s it was. I recognized that there was great music that we don’t hear as part of the normal repertory. That whet my curiosity and one thing led to another. I never expected to find myself with a sort of mission in my mind, but that’s what developed. But I think it’s important to understand from the very beginning that it’s music, and it’s music born right out of the same cultural milieu of the music that we perform all the time. First of all it should never have been suppressed, its composers should never have been suppressed. It should not be put in a cultural ghetto, or an intellectual ghetto. It belongs right next to everything else. The feeling I have is I’m making music the same way I do Mahler, Brahms, or Bartok. Primarily it’s music. The loss to our culture — there’s a great deal of our patrimony which we didn’t start our lives knowing, including within what we think of as classical music repertory. My point is if it’s not heard it’s as if it doesn’t exist. All I’m doing is performing it and trying to get other people to perform it.

It was a live performance of Verdi’s La traviata that inspired you to become a musician. Was there some particular aspect of it that enchanted you?

I can’t remember an aspect because I experienced it as a whole. The experience of being transported into another sphere was so clear to me that night. Eleven years old. In the course of several months I saw four operas and in the course of those months my life was transformed. I wanted to hear music. Period. That was all. I started to take piano lessons. I just couldn’t live without music.

Asking you to pick favorites here: is there one recording experience that stands out in your memory as being particularly special, or sublime?

I think I am particularly proud of the Zemlinsky series of about ten or eleven CDs that I made with EMI in Cologne in my years as music director there. I don’t like favorites, but I’m particularly proud of the two operas, [Der] Zwerg and the Florentine Tragedy of Zemlinsky. But I wouldn’t want to say that and nothing else, but the Zemlinsky series is one I feel a great deal of satisfaction about that.

What does it mean to you to be the first American to hold the position of Principal Conductor at RAI?

I didn’t really think about it when I took the position, but it turns out to be a fact. The RAI, [pronounced Rah-ee], it’s called the national symphony, why? Because it is the broadcasting orchestra of Italy. Every concert, once a week or whatever it is, is broadcast live throughout the entire country and frankly for people who have radios and computers, it can be heard throughout Europe. I imagine you could hear them in the U.S. as well.

The RAI, it’s like the BBC. It was formed by Fascist Italy because the radio had become a part of everybody’s lives and the government felt that everybody should be able to have access to culture over the radio. So at the time they formed four orchestras. Also in Rome, Milan, and Naples. As well as Torino. Eventually, around the 90’s, they concluded that they didn’t need four, and they couldn’t afford four, and so they gradually consolidated and closed the other three. Torino was favored because it was the best one, so it survived and in the 90’s was reconstituted. If you go online, it says “this orchestra was founded in the 1990s” but in fact it was actually formed in the 1930s. It’s the oldest symphony orchestra and was always sort of an island in itself, a respected and very disciplined orchestra. So it’s a really great position.

It’s no secret I love Italy. Have all my life. I took my first trip to Europe at the age of 20. I went to Spoleto. Eventually I fell in love with Europe. I still go to Spoleto Festival. [Yet] I’ve never held a position there [in Italy], and when this offer came up I immediately said, you know what? I’m going to take this. Part of the reason is, you keep putting things off in life and when you get to my age you realize you shouldn’t be. Every year I want to be in Italy more, so this is a great offer. It was fortuitous.

We live in a time when entertainment options are so diverse — live and electronic, including digital, can you, in a way, make the case for the classical concert experience?

Absolutely. About 30 years ago there was a great deal of discussion about electronic, whatever you want to call it — recordings, downloading, computers, internet — how when all that was there, nobody would go to a concert, and live music would drop out. I remember serious discussion, articles, great pundits. And then what happened? In essence, the recording industry fell apart. CD sales went down to the point that recording companies as we knew them all went out of business. Bought up. Traded around like baseball cards.

And it turned out, people still wanted to go to live concerts. Why? I think the experience of a live concert is more fulfilling to most people because it’s done in community. It’s shared with everybody else in that audience, with all those musicians onstage with live people around them. If I can use a metaphor, it’s a little bit like churchgoing for a religious person. The experience of hearing music together and feeling the emotions together is a very important type of taste for our society.

I hate to be talking about the distinction between popular and classical music because when you break down those terms, it’s very difficult. Should classical music be unpopular? Is popular music less, because it’s not part of a long tradition necessarily? So I don’t like to get into that because it can reek of a certain elitism. I don’t believe in classical music being for an elite. We could be popular. We were popular. Here’s an interesting fact: nine million people listened to Toscanini’s broadcasts on NBC. At the time, the country’s population was around 130 million. That means that close to ten percent of the population was listening regularly to classical music. We’re nowhere near that. That’s my point over and over again. This was a far more common experience. I don’t believe the music has gotten any worse. It’s simply a matter of exposure and habits.

Nicola Luisotti is stepping down at the San Francisco Opera, and he has said that his tenure of about a decade is about the right length to direct a company.  You were in Rotterdam for eight years, Paris for ten, Cologne for thirteen. Do you find that there is some organic arc to tenure, and a time when it’s best to move on, not only because of a new opportunity but because the orchestra is ready for something else?

No. Organic? Yes. Definable? Yes. If you feel ten years is enough, the people feel it’s enough, then it’s enough. I believe in long-term collaborations because I feel that they grow and benefit over the passage of time, if they’re good. You’ll notice that the shortest tenure in my life was eight years in Rotterdam. Ravinia Festival is eleven years. Cologne was thirteen years. I’m leaving a position now that I never imagined I would stay more than a few years. Thirty-seven years. There are very few tenures of that length in the United States, or anywhere else. It really depends on a particular combination of factors. You can’t quantify art. There’s a terrible tendency these days to look at these things in business terms. Or make reference to other political terms. Every artist is different and special and every institution is different and special. There are no laws.

Is there a difference between a great conductor and a great principal conductor?

There can be. Yes. A music director has to be an artistic director of everything that goes on in that orchestra, or at least an overview of what goes on in that orchestra. You have to have a vast repertory. You have to ensure that if you don’t do every type of repertory, then someone else whom you respect does, that guests make up, so that the entire repertory is represented. A modern symphony orchestra has to be able to play everything from early music to contemporary music written last week. As a music director, you are balancing all that. You’re responsible for the artistic direction that the orchestra or company is taking. Not everybody has that. There are people whose chemistry is good short term, but not long term. And by the way, most of us do both. I do both. I’m music director a lot, as you’ve seen, but at the same time I’ve been guesting throughout Europe and the United States my whole life and that’s also good. The variety is good. It’s good for the orchestra, it’s good for the conductors.

The Britten (Sinfonia da Requiem) has such an interesting history. Can you talk a little bit about what the piece meant at its inception and what you think it means today?

Well, you’re extraordinarily well-read. You know more about me than I do, and you know that I’m a Britten fan, and you know that around the centenary of his birth around 2013, I made a kind of personal homage over several years. I never counted up how many pieces I did. Just about anywhere I was going I tried to do some Britten piece. In Los Angeles, and other places like the Met, the Rome Opera, I think I may have done eight or nine Britten operas in three years. I fell under the spell of Britten fairly young. Fifteen or 16 years old. So I’ve lived with him all my life, just the same way with Mozart, Wagner and Brahms and Beethoven. For me, Britten is a great, great, great, composer. There are aspects of his writing, not the music so much, his personal vision. He was a great pacifist. He was concerned not just with war, but with violence in general. So this piece, which was actually commissioned by the Japanese government, and by the time he was finished, there was a war. It eventually found its home in America. Boston and New York both premiered this work, in the same weekend. I think the first time I conducted it was with the Juilliard orchestra. It’s a very powerful piece. It’s a short, three-movements in one, attached symphony, based on three contrasting feelings. The Lacrymosa is a funeral dirge, a huge one, the second movement is called Dies irae and is a reference to the end of time, and also you can sense the frightening horror of being subjected to an attack, from airstrikes, or whatever. And the Requiem is a song of a hoped-for peace and tranquility for those who have lost their lives. So, in 20 minutes it’s a very powerful expression. Not at the time, but we know now, it was a presage for the War Requiem, which many are tempted to say is his greatest masterwork. And I intend to agree with that. It’s a very special piece. I like audiences to hear it.

Photo: Chester Higgins

“He is a miracle of equilibrium: his dramatic intuition never fails, nor betrays the transparency of the music…In full command of his skills, Conlon exudes maturity to his fingertips.”

La Monde de la Musique