James Conlon: May Festival's musical force

James Conlon

By Janelle Gelfand

'My brain is always ticking'

For 33 years, May Festival music director James Conlon has hit the ground running the instant he’s landed in Cincinnati. His “presto” tempo won’t stop until he climbs onto a plane to leave after the two-week marathon of choral music ends on Saturday.

“Last Saturday, I hit the ground, went right to a chorus rehearsal and came back to the office to put all kinds of things in place,” Conlon said on Tuesday, as he consulted a large calendar grid taped down to his desk. “Sunday was a long chorus rehearsal in the afternoon. Then I went to a fund-raising dinner. Today was the board meeting. Soon, I’m going to start working with the soloists. Tonight’s the first rehearsal for ‘Carmina‘ and Verdi with orchestra chorus and soloists. That stops at 10 p.m.

“That’s pretty typical.”

The conductor is quick to point out that this year, he matches the record of founding music director Theodore Thomas, who also led the festival for 33 years.

“Next year, I’ll hold the record. I want you to know I’ve done it all without steroids,” he said, grinning.

The New York-born conductor is a musical force, extremely intellectual, articulate and one of the busiest on the planet. Cincinnati has benefited from his international connections.

“When James Conlon calls, you come. That’s international relevance. When he speaks, the music world listens. Everyone who knows that legacy, that pedigree, that old school of musicianship,” said tenor Rodrick Dixon, who made his seventh festival appearance as a soloist in Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” on opening night.

Outside Conlon’s office door at Music Hall, his operatic soloists can be heard vocalizing. They are warming up with his coach-accompanist of choice, Susanna Lemberskaya. A specialist who has worked with the San Francisco and Los Angeles opera companies, she is officially retired, but Conlon persuades her to come to Cincinnati each year.

“She’s one of the greats,” Conlon said, as he greeted her later.

Conlon’s reputation is at least partly responsible for bringing not only people working behind the scenes, such as Lemberskaya, but also a top-flight string of soloists to the festival each year. The music director of the LA Opera and the Ravinia Festival (summer home of the Chicago Symphony), he is a regular presence at the Metropolitan Opera, where he has conducted at least 250 performances, and a regular guest of major orchestras around the world. And he always has an ear out for singers who might be right for Cincinnati.

“Sure, my brain is always ticking,” Conlon said. “Those of us who have to produce concerts, we’re always looking for singers. And we’re always looking for the right one in the right piece at the right time.”

On this day, his head was full of music. He had just come from a month of concerts in Italy and Madrid. And he recently wrapped up a season of opera in Los Angeles with LA Opera.

“ (Verdi’s) ‘Simon Boccanegra’ with Placido Domingo was a high point,” he ticked off. “Earlier in the season, we did (Tchaikovsky’s) ‘Eugene Onegin,’ which I hadn’t done in years. I’m more in love with it than I have ever been in my life. It’s absolutely amazing. And Mozart’s ‘Cosi fan tutte,’ with the best, most unified great cast I’ve ever had.”

Lately, Conlon has been conducting his personal homage to British composer Benjamin Britten, who will have a centennial next year. (Cincinnati can expect to hear Britten at the 2013 May Festival, he hinted.) He has conducted his way through the operas “The Turn of the Screw” and “Albert Herring” and will leave for Rome to conduct “Midsummer Night’s Dream” right after the May Festival.

An evening of Tchaikovsky rarities

In Cincinnati, Conlon is most anticipating an evening of Tchaikovsky – including several rarities -- on Saturday.

“First of all, I love Tchaikovsky. I know he’s very popular. I want the audience to hear that there is more beautiful Tchaikovsky that they have never heard, at least equal to all the pieces they know,” he said.

He has “cherry picked” selections from Tchaikovsky’s operas, such as “Eugene Onegin,” “The Queen of Spades” and “Iolanta.”

“The opera ‘Iolanta’ is a fairy tale. The first person who told me about it was Slava (the Russian cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich) 30 years ago. He used to do it in concert. Everybody knows it in Russia,” he said.

Conlon has never witnessed a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Moscow Cantata,” which is also on the program.

“It is a beautiful, patriotic piece, stirring, beuatiful, soulful, everything you love about Tchaikovsky,” he said. “That’s the program I’m the most excited about, because it’s creative. We have to stretch people’s ears.”

In all the years that he’s been coming to the May Festival, what does he enjoy being able to do in Cincinnati that he can’t do anywhere else? The question prompts a long, thoughtful response.

“My desire over the years in finding programs and themes – it all celebrates the importance of the choral music repertory and preserves something that has become something that has become an endangered species – the amateur choir that collaborates with a professional orchestra,” he said.

The May Festival Chorus helped to anchor classical music in Cincinnati, “and planted it in such a fantastic way, that it’s our job to keep it going,” he said. “‘Amateur’ has taken on, in certain regards, a derogatory meaning. But amateur is about love, as the word suggests. And that is a precious commodity and has to be preserved.”