American conductor James Conlon was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur in 2002, an honor bestowed on only three other American musicians: Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, and Lorin Maazel. Joining this pantheon confirmed Conlon’s place among the world’s most acclaimed living conductors; critics assert that his leadership at the Opéra National de Paris rescued the famed institution after it faltered in the 1990s.
Conlon was born in 1950 in New York City, one of five children. His mother was a former teacher, and Conlon’s father had a long career as a municipal bureaucrat. Neither were musically inclined, but ConIon recalled in an interview with Opera News writer Brian Kellow that “[m]y parents were encouraging. My mother, in particular, was very supportive, and my father was a brilliant man with an encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature.” He discovered classical music when he was eleven years old, and won entrance into Manhattan’s prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuaridia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts a few years later. It was a turning point in his life, he told Kellow. “Suddenly, I felt this tremendous burden falling off me when I realized that there were other kids my age who loved all these things, and I wasn’t so weird after all.”
Conlon went on to graduate from the equally acclaimed Juilliard School in New York City, and in 1971 debuted professionally at the Spoleto Festival in a production of the nineteenth-century Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. In February 1972 he was tapped to conduct a production of La Bohéme at the Juilliard Opera Center in New York City after a last-minute cancellation left a vacancy at the podium. The fortuitous opportunity had been made possible by opera diva Maria Callas, then a visiting professor at Juilliard, who had been impressed by Conlon’s talents. In 1974 he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at the behest of its music director, Pierre Boulez; two years later Conlon was in New York conducting a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Before he was 30 he had debuted with the Royal Opera at London’s Covent Garden and had been appointed music director of Cincinnati’s May Festival, the longest-running choral event in North America.
Early in the 1980s Conlon began working with the Orchèstre de Paris of the Opéra National de Paris and in 1983 was named music director of the Rotterdam (Netherlands) Philharmonic. After several years there, he became general music director for the city of Cologne, where he served as chief conductor for both the Cologne Opera and the city’s Gürzenich Orchestra. In 1996 he formally took over at the Orchestra de Paris. A new Paris Opera had opened near the Bastille with
For the Record…
Born in 1950 in New York; NY; married Jennifer Ringo (a soprano), 1987; two children. Education: Graduated from the Juilliard School, early 1970s.
Made professional conducting debut at the Spoleto Festival, 1971; first performed with the New York Philharmonic, 1974, Metropolitan Opera of New York, 1976, and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London, England), 1979; conductor of Cincinnati May Festival since 1979; Rotterdam (Netherlands) Philharmonic, music director, 1983-91; Cologne (Germany) Opera, chief conductor, 1989-98; Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, music director, 1990–; named principal conductor of the Opéra National de Paris, 1996; Ravinia Festival, music director, 2003–.
Awards: Officier des Arts et des Lettres (France), 1996; Grand Prix du Disque (France), for EMI recording of Zemlinsky: The Dwarf, 1997; University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Zemlinsky Prize, 1999; Legion d’Honneur (French Republic), 2002.
Addresses: Business—Opéa National de Paris, 120, rue de Lyon, F-75012 Paris, France. Record company—EMI Classics, 304 Park Ave. S., New York, NY 10010-5339.
great fanfare in 1989, but internal problems forced a high turnover rate among its conductors. Moreover, the acoustics in the new venue were poor, and the orchestra was frequently faulted for its less-than-polished performances. Conlon worked diligently to improve the troubled situation, improving the sound and adding new works from innovative composers to the repertoire. Within five years reviews had vastly improved, along with attendance figures. Conlon admitted in 2001 to Dana Thomas of Newsweek International there were still “bad nights. You can’t stop a tenor from getting sick and canceling at five in the afternoon. But we are staying abreast without pandering to stars. We try to get the up-and-coming talents and show them off before others do.”
Conlon has emerged as one of the opera world’s most adept conductors with a repertoire grounded in the classics. One of his signature pieces is Die Zauberflöte; he has conducted some 200 performances since his Met debut; he is also a favorite at Milan’s La Scala and other great opera houses where he has conducted performances of Don Giovanni, Aida, Carmen, Tosca, La Traviata, and the Wagner operas Tristan und Isolde, Die Walkurie, Gotterdammerung, and Parsifal. In 1994 he took the baton at the Met for a revival of twentieth-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had premiered in 1934 but was denounced by Soviet authorities a few years later. Shostakovich never wrote another opera, and the story of the thwarted romance of a rural wife couched political metaphors inside a family drama. “Conlon’s pointed, incisive conducting gave score all its exhilarating, exhausting vitality,” asserted Opera News critic John W. Freeman in a critique of one evening’s performance.
Conlon’s work as a champion of forgotten composers has also burnished his reputation in classical circles. Foremost among them is Alexander von Zemlinsky, once associated with the famed twentieth-century modernist and fellow Austrian Arnold Schoenberg. In 1997, the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth, the Cologne Philharmonic performed a rare Zemlinsky opera, The Dwarf. Based on an Oscar Wilde play, The Birthday of the Infanta, the work also had a sadder link to Zemlinsky’s failed romance with Alma Schindler, who later left him to marry composer Gustav Mahler. (In her memoirs, Schindler called Zemlinsky “a dwarf.”) The opera’s tragic title figure, who has never seen himself in a mirror, believes he is a handsome figure-especially after he is given to a Spanish princess as a birthday gift. The staging was recorded for EMI Classics, as were Zemlinsky’s Symphonies nos. 1 and 2 in 1998, each done with the Gurzenich Orchestra of Cologne. Writing on Conlon’s recordings of Zemlinsky oeuvre, American Record Guide critic Kurt Moses remarked that the conductor “has a good feel for its ebb and flow and he brings a welcome clarity to its orchestral textures . The Cologne Orchestra plays with commitment and verve; they seem to like the music as much as their conductor.”
Conlon has also helped revive interest in the work of Czech-Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann, who died in a concentration camp in 1944. Imprisoned in the Theresienstadt ghetto before being deported to Auschwitz, Ullmann continued to compose, writing his one-act opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis. Conlon’s interest in Zemlinsky led him to discover Ullmann, who had been Zemlinsky’s protègè and assistant conductor during the 1920s at the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague. Ullmann’s untimely death, Conlon asserts, and the loss of other rising Central European composers during World War II, left a void in the classical world. As he explained to Billboard writer Steve Smith, before their deaths, Ullmann and other composers who perished in camps—Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas, Erwin Schulhoff, and Gideon Klein—were part of a “younger generation [that] was experimenting with all sorts of things and had many different viewpoints and attitudes. Had there been no Nazi Germany, there would have been a dialogue going on, as there had been in German music for the past 200 years. There would not have been only one giant who came through the whole thing—and even Schoenberg might have been different.”
In March of 2003 Conlon launched a series of concerts under the banner “Recovering a Musical Heritage” to address the issue of reviving Germany’s musical dialogue. He presented compositions by Ullmann and Haas at New York’s Carnegie Hall and conducted Der Kaiser von Atlantis that same week at New York’s Central Synagogue. He then returned to Cologne to conduct its philharmonic in two Ullmann symphonies that were slated for 2003 release on Germany’s Capriccio label. In May he conducted Cincinnati’s May Festival for the twenty-fourth year and, in the same month, became music director of the Ravinia Festival (summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). He remains director of the Orchèstra de Paris, has appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra during its Tanglewood summer series, and often appears at the Aspen Music Festival. Married to soprano Jennifer Ringo since 1987, Conlon has made Paris his home for several years. He rarely performs with his wife, as he told Kellow in the Opera News interview, for “people will always say, ‘Well, you’re just singing here because you’re his wife.’And it’s not fair to her—it’s not fair to the talent of the spouse.” The couple have two daughters.
Conlon remains committed to bringing classical music out of its sometimes elitist perch, especially in the United States. “In America, we have to break down the fear of classical music,” Conlon told Kellow in the Opera News article. “An opera theater or concert hall should not be intimidating. When you go to a movie, and people are coming out and you ask how they liked it, they don’t say, ‘Well, I don’t really know anything about it.’”
Zemlinsky: Eine florentinische Tragödie, EMI Classics, 1997.
Zemlinsky: The Dwarf, EMI, 1997.
Zemlinsky: Symphonies nos. 1 & 2, Angel, 1998.
Puccini: La Bohème, Erato/Red Seal, 1998.
Bo Skovhus: Arias, Sony Classical, 1998.
Stravinsky: Le Rossignol, EMI, 1999.
Amore II: Great Italian Love Arias, Sony Classical, 2000.
Zemlinsky: Cymbeline Suite/Ein Tanzpoem/Fruhlingsbe gräbnis, EMI, 2001.
Zemlinsky: Choral and Orchestral Works, EMI, 2002.
Puccini’s Heroines: The Power of Love, Warner, 2002.
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto no. 1; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk Suite, Capriccio, 2002.
American Record Guide, September/October 1996, p. 183; July/August 1997, p. 198; September/October 1998, p. 257; November/December 1998, p. 171; September 2001, p. 20; May 2002, p. 33; March/April 2003, p. 190.
Billboard, March 29, 2003, p. 12.
Cincinnati Post, May 18, 1998.
New Republic, June 3, 1996, p. 30.
Newsweek International, April 9, 2001, p. 54.
New York Times, March 23, 2003, p. 28; May 13, 2003, p. E2.
Opera News, February 4, 1995, p. 42; March 4, 1995, p. 42; April 11, 1998, p. 56; August 1998, p. 41; June 1999, p. 14; July 2002, p. 69.
Time, November 21, 1994, p. 106.
"Conlon, James." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/conlon-james
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