Features

May Festival maestro bids adieu to his beloved event

Read on the Enquirer website here.

By Janelle Gelfand The Cincinnati Enquirer
May 13, 2016

James Conlon isn’t sure how he will feel when he leads the “Hallelujah” Chorus, the traditional close to the Cincinnati May Festival, for the very last time in Music Hall on May 28.

That moment, with an expected 3,000 or more singing along, will conclude his tenure as May Festival music director. It will also be the final concert in Music Hall before the hall closes for renovation.

“I can’t tell you how emotional it is until we get to May. I’m a person who’s always looking forward, face forward, and every day is full,” said Conlon recently by phone, as he drove to work at the Los Angeles Opera, the only time available to chat in his crammed schedule. “I concentrate 100 percent on what I’m doing and I will concentrate 100 percent when I get to Cincinnati for the May Festival. The next day, I’m getting on a plane and flying to Rome, and then I’ll be concentrating on that. Certainly, I’m very grateful for all the years.”

And the years are many: 37 to be exact. All of those years ago, he was handpicked to carry the May Festival mantle by then-music director James Levine. He was 29. A year earlier, at 28, he’d guest-conducted Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater,” which he will revisit for his last festival, opening May 20.

It is a lifetime ago. But Conlon, 66, has had the kind of significant and starry career that for most people would constitute many lifetimes. It has combined glamour and hard work. Vision and creativity. Trials and triumph.

In the music centers of New York, Paris, Cologne, Rotterdam, Chicago and Los Angeles, where he has held and still holds conducting posts, Conlon has rubbed shoulders with the most glamorous stars in the music universe. It was the diva Maria Callas who discovered the New York native’s talent while he was still a Juilliard student. Opera superstar Placido Domingo is his working partner at Los Angeles Opera, where Conlon has been music director since 2006.

As he drove, he was on the way to honor “Star Wars” composer John Williams, who “says he’s retiring, but I don’t know. He tells everybody it’s his last movie.  At least until the next one.”

Yet each year, for two weeks each May, he has adored coming to Cincinnati to conduct the Cincinnati May Festival. Before he begins his May Festival marathon, he will have run other marathons. As he spoke in Los Angeles, he had finished a run of “The Magic Flute,” opened “Madame Butterfly,” and led his annual community production of Benjamin Britten’s “Noah’s Flood” for 7,000 people.

“Thanks to my (May Festival) concerts at the Cathedral Basilica in Covington, the first place I did ‘Noah’s Flood,’ I brought it to Los Angeles, and more than 60,000 people have come over 10 years,” he noted.

Last summer, he concluded a celebrated, 11-year tenure as music director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony. At the Metropolitan Opera, he has conducted more than 270 performances since his debut in 1976. Marathons, all.

But he admits that the experience in Cincinnati of preparing, rehearsing and leading a vast amount of choral music in five concerts over two weekends has opened his eyes.

“The privilege of being the music director of the May Festival is the privilege to live with the choral repertory on an ongoing basis, and be able to perform it with the people you feel attached to – the Cincinnati Symphony and the May Festival Chorus,” he said. “Most music directors of symphonies don’t do anything like the amount we do in two weeks in a season. It is an absolute treasure chest.”

Never lost the excitement

He wasn’t totally green when he arrived at age 28. In fact, the conductor knew a lot about Cincinnati. His family had friends in the Queen City and he had seen the Cincinnati Symphony perform in New York. When he was 16 in 1966—exactly 50 years ago and already bitten by the opera bug – he tagged along to Cincinnati with a costume designer to a Cincinnati Opera production of “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”), when opera was held at the Zoo.

Today, although familiar with Cincinnati’s musical organizations, he’s never gotten to know the city very well, aside from attending Reds games.

“I go into the building in the morning and come out at midnight every day, so I have tunnel vision when I’m there,” he said. “That’s never changed. I’ve been to museums once or twice. I tend to go to the same restaurants, because they’re the ones that are open late at night.”

But he has enjoyed many dishes of Graeter’s Ice Cream. While recuperating from surgery a few years ago, Cincinnati friends shipped him six pints to aid in his recovery. Chorus members bring him Graeter’s each year so he has a supply during the festival.

The musical highlights of his 37 years are for the critics to decide, Conlon said. His “treasure chest” has included cantatas, oratorios, requiems, choral symphonies and nearly 40 opera selections, from scenes to entire operas. The statistics alone are impressive: 144 concerts, more than 350 different works, 100 composers, nine world premieres (including two this year), one North American premiere and one United States premiere.

“There are so many memories that it becomes impossible to single any out. What is striking to me is not how one thing stood out, but how the experience of the May Festival continues to be exciting year after year,” he said. “At least for me, it never lost its excitement, from the very first May Festival up to the present.”

Still, there is one project that brings a small note of pride to his voice: His resurrecting of a nearly-forgotten oratorio on the biblical Exodus story, “The Ordering of Moses,” by R. Nathaniel Dett.

In the May Festival’s 2014 Carnegie Hall performance of the oratorio, the concert was broadcast in its entirety live to millions of listeners. It was exactly 77 years after NBC’s broadcast (May 7, 1937) from Cincinnati’s Music Hall was abruptly aborted, the result of objections to the station that the composer was African-American. The live recording of the Carnegie Hall performance has just been released on Bridge Records.

“It’s a work that deserves to be heard and deserves to be known. It belongs to the May Festival, it belongs to our history, it belongs to a significant and important event of the time,” he said.

He is also gratified at the way Cincinnati embraced his programs of music by composers who died in or were affected by the Holocaust. The May Festival was one of the first places he began performing programs of this little-known but rewarding repertoire. He has since championed it in many other venues.

For Conlon, receiving the Roger E. Joseph Prize from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2013 was extremely moving. He was honored on the stage at Music Hall, just before leading a performance of Britten’s “War Requiem.”

“The response – the standing ovation from the audience, from the orchestra, from the chorus – that’s something that touched me very deeply,” he said.

As for his soloists, Cincinnati has benefited from his world-wide contacts by experiencing a “Who’s Who” of international opera stars, many on their ascent while they were still affordable. He remains close to some, such as tenors John Aler and Rodrick Dixon and the legendary soprano Benita Valente.

“Their loyalty to the May Festival and to me personally was another great gift that I had,” he said.

Through it all, he has tried to keep the chorus – the very reason for the festival – front and center.  This year’s final-night performance of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” represents, he said, “the coming together of all of the elements that I think have grounded the May Festival. First of all, there is the importance of the chorus’ role.  And being top-flight Mendelssohn means that the orchestra is not just accompaniment. It’s a work of genius that is drawn from the scriptures, as are so many great choral works.”

Yes, there have been challenges too, over the years – to keep programming fresh and to sell tickets. Attendance in some years has sagged.

“The biggest challenge to the May Festival is the same for the symphony and to everybody that is devoted to classical music in this country. It is keeping the audience, making up the erosion in the audience – a very long erosion over 30, 40 or 50 years – and getting our young people interested earlier,” he said. “The ball was dropped in education. And we, the arts institutions, are the ones who have to pick up that ball and do something about it.”

Despite stepping down from posts in Cincinnati and Chicago, this maestro is not slowing down. Next fall, he becomes principal conductor of the Turin, Italy-based RAI National Symphony Orchestra, the official ensemble of the Italian public broadcasting network RAI. Still, he is nostalgic about letting go of the May Festival, even though he will be named Music Director Laureate. It’s difficult to put into words what Cincinnati has meant to him.

“I know that I will probably never hold another position like this. I will continue conducting choral works, but it’s never going to be that all-consuming breadth and width of the repertory. That’s unique to Cincinnati, and unique to the May Festival,” he said.

“I hope that doesn’t change. It’s my most fervent hope that the central focus continues to be the choral repertory and classical music. That is what makes it unique. The genius of the May Festival is contained therein, and it’s my hope that it will continue to be the case.”

Conlon’s May Festival milestones

1978: James Conlon makes his debut conducting Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” at the invitation of then-music director James Levine.

1979: Conlon’s first season as music director. He is 29.

1980: Initiates the tradition of holding concerts at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, which continues to the present.

1982: He programs Mozart’s “Requiem” for the first time in 100 years of the festival’s history.

1988: Conlon leads the world premiere of a new edition of Verdi’s opera “Luisa Miller.”

1989: For his 10th anniversary, he establishes a new tradition of short recitals presented by a festival artist before each Music Hall concert.

1992: He leads the North American premiere of Weber’s complete opera “Oberon” in a version by Gustav Mahler. Opera star Roberta Peters makes her May Festival debut singing Strauss waltzes.

1993: Conlon is flown in from Paris on the Concorde, arriving hours before he is to conduct Brahms’ “Requiem” with no rehearsal after legendary maestro Robert Shaw cancels at the eleventh hour.

1998: Soprano Jessye Norman makes her May Festival debut and Ohio native and CCM graduate Kathleen Battle returns.

1999: For his 20th anniversary, Conlon programs 20th-century works, including 18 May Festival premieres. The season opens with the U.S. premiere of Kurt Weill’s “Prophets,” Act IV of “The Eternal Road” in the historic Isaac M. Wise Temple on Plum Street, Downtown.

2000: Conlon leads the May Festival’s first national broadcast, which airs on PBS, and the season enjoys record attendance.

2001: Conlon conducts Britten’s “War Requiem” at Carnegie Hall four weeks after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The concert is met by stunned silence, followed by a long, appreciative ovation.

2002: Following riots in Cincinnati in 2001, Conlon programs “Beethoven, Bernstein and Brotherhood,” an effort to help heal the tension in the city. The audience bursts into spontaneous applause at the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s “I Have a Dream” speech, set in Adolphus Hailstork’s oratorio “Done Made My Vow.” In Paris, he receives the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest distinction, from then-president of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac.

2003: Renowned opera singer James Morris returns to the May Festival for the first time since 1986 to perform Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem,” with Conlon conducting, and the title role in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” under director of choruses Robert Porco.

2004: The world premiere recording of Liszt’s “St. Stanislaus” is released by Telarc and receives the 30th International F. Liszt Record Grand Prix by the Liszt Society of Budapest. The season includes world-renowned soprano Deborah Voigt, who dazzles as Sieglinde in Act I of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” James Morris returns to perform the role of Hans Sachs in “Die Meistersinger.” Conlon also leads Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.”

2005: Conlon’s portrait honoring his 25th anniversary by Muli Tang is unveiled at Music Hall. This festival marks the historic reunion between James Conlon and James Levine (music director from 1974 to 1978). Levine, a Cincinnati native, conducts the May Festival forces for the first time since 1980, in a stirring performance of the Berlioz Requiem. The season also features soprano Deborah Voigt and tenor Ben Heppner performing for the first time together, in Act II from Wagner’s “Tristan & Isolde.”

2008: Conlon leads a dream cast of soloists, including soprano Angela Brown and tenor Salvatore Licitra in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” (The Force of Destiny), performed in its entirety for the first time in 135 years at the festival.

2009: Conlon is inducted into Cincinnati-based American Classical Music Hall Hall of Fame. HIs 30th anniversary season includes the debut of Broadway legend Patti LuPone in Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins.“He also receives a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording of Kurt Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” with Los Angeles Opera.

2010: A Russian night includes the Prologue and Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s sweeping epic, “Boris Godunov.” The spectacle has full chorus with an expanded orchestra, herald trumpets in the balcony and four soloists, followed by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in the original version with the chorus singing in Russian.

2012: Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium, which seats more than 3,400, is packed to the rafters for “Carmina Burana.” Onstage are no fewer than 340 performers.

2013: Conlon receives the Roger E. Joseph Prize from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on Music Hall’s stage. He reprises Britten’s “War Requiem” during the festival in celebration of the centennial of Britten’s birth and as part of his worldwide, three-year homage to the composer.

2014: Conlon returns to Carnegie Hall to lead the May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony in Robert Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio “The Ordering of Moses” and John Adams’ “Harmonium” as part of the Spring for Music Festival. The historic concert is broadcast live over NPR and New York’s WQXR classical radio, and recorded for the oratorio’s first commercial recording on Bridge Records.

2016: Conlon’s final season as music director. He will receive the Irma Lazarus Award, one of the Ohio Governor’s Awards for the Arts at a luncheon on May 18 in Columbus. Conlon is the longest-serving artistic leader in May Festival history, and among the longest-tenured maestros of any major classical music institution in the United States. He will become Music Director Laureate.

Enquirer archives contributed.

The May Festival season at a glance

Concerts are at 8 p.m. in Music Hall, except for May 22, which is in the Cathedral Basilica. Free recitals (with concert ticket) precede each Music Hall concert at 7 p.m. Michael Chertock accompanies at the piano.

The May Festival Chorus is led by Robert Porco, director of choruses; May Festival Youth Chorus is directed by James Bagwell. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Louis Langrée, music director) is the official orchestra of the May Festival.

Friday, May 20: Mozart’s Overture to “Lucio Silla,” K. 135; Overture to “Idomeneo,” K. 366; Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” K. 492; “Ave verum corpus,” “Exsultate jubilate” and “Great” Mass in C Minor. James Conlon, conductor; soprano Lisette Oropesa, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, tenor Ben Bliss and baritone John Cheek.

Recital: Ben Bliss

Saturday, May 21: Verdi’s “Otello.” James Conlon, conductor; tenor Gregory Kunde (Otello), soprano Tamara Wilson (Desdemona), baritone Egils Silins (Iago), tenor Ben Bliss (Cassio), mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy (Emilia), tenor Rodrick Dixon (Roderigo) and baritone John Cheek (Lodovico, Montano, the Herald); Cincinnati Children’s Choir, Robyn Lana, artistic director.

Recital: Rodrick Dixon

Next Sunday, May 22: Newly commissioned works by Julia Adolphe and Alvin Singleton. James Conlon and James Bagwell, conductors. The May Festival Youth Chorus joins the May Festival Chamber Choir, 8 p.m., Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington.

May 27: Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater.” James Conlon, conductor; soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and bass-baritone Kristinn Sigmundsson.

Recital: Sara Murphy

May 28: Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” James Conlon, conductor; soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, baritone Egils Silins and bass-baritone Kristinn Sigmundsson. Abby Sherrard, treble solo.

Recital: Kristinn Sigmundsson.

Tickets: Four-concert subscriptions from $88. Single tickets from $12. 513-381-3300, mayfestival.com.

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