NEW YORK — When James Conlon steps on to the podium Friday night to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it will mark his emergence as a major player on the American classical music scene. After spending nearly two decades in Europe, Mr. Conlon is assuming a new role as the music director of the Ravinia Festival, the orchestra's summer home.
"I had never planned to stay that long. It just worked out that way. I kept going - from Rotterdam, to Cologne, to Paris." He adds, "I had ignored America for 20 years. And you can't do that. It's just too important."
More recently, Placido Domingo, artistic director of the Los Angeles Opera, successfully urged Maestro Conlon to accept the position of music director of that company, effective September 2006.
The Ravinia Festival is now the oldest outdoor summer music festival in the country, established in 1904 in Highland Park just outside Chicago. It is home to music and musicians from all walks of performance life, from classical luminaries to rock bands and dance troupes. It also hosts special events such as this year's concert performance of Stephen Sondheim's early musical, "Anyone Can Whistle," with Patti Lupone. Still, the focal point is the six-week residency of the Chicago Symphony.
At Ravinia, Conlon's first concert features works by Viktor Ullmann and Gustav Mahler. The Mahler kicks off a cycle in which all nine symphonies will be performed in numerical order over the next few seasons. Also starting this summer is a complete Sunday-afternoon Mozart piano-concerto cycle.
The attention to Ullmann's work is part of a greater project for Conlon. He wants to highlight the hundreds of works banned by the Nazis and labeled Entartete Musik, or "Degenerate Music." The maestro plans to feature a different such composer each summer in a series called "Breaking the Silence."
Conlon's love of this repertoire began when he first explored the major works of Zemlinsky during his Cologne years - performances that were recorded by EMI. As he was doing research, he began discovering names of unfamiliar and unknown composers and delved into their work.
"There's an assumption ... in our métier, that if you don't know a name of a composer, he can't be good," says Conlon. "We believe we know the history of ... 20th-century music and that the natural processes - Darwinian if you want - have selected out the important pieces. I now say it wasn't just Darwin."
He goes on to explain that during the Nazi years, "a period of political suppression the likes of which has rarely been experienced in the civilized world," composers and their works were systematically eliminated. After the war, the one composer giant who survived was Arnold Schoenberg, the father of serial composition. "The orthodoxy and the dogmatism of Schoenberg's followers was so strong after the war that if you did not write music like Schoenberg, you were not considered serious."
Now, some 50 years later, the world is ready to look at those missing years, and with the help of a conductor as renowned as Conlon, these composers are entering the musical mainstream.
Clearly, it's an ambitious schedule, but then the Chicago Symphony residency at Ravinia has always featured an array of repertoire in a relatively short amount of time, which of course means limited rehearsal time for each program.
"I have had an uninterrupted relationship with Ravinia since 1977. I don't think of it as a paucity of rehearsal time, I just think of it as a very exciting opportunity to work very smart; have your wits about you," he says. "They're a great orchestra; you can light the place up in a short time if you have to."
Conlon has always been one to step up to a challenge. He cut his professional teeth with various symphony orchestras, as well as the Cincinnati May Festival (a post he assumed in 1979 and still holds), and the Metropolitan Opera. Then in 1983, Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands invited the young conductor, essentially unknown in Europe at the time, to become its music director. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly placed Rotterdam in Germany.]
He moved to Cologne in 1989 and became general music director for the entire city - including the Gürzenich Orchestra/Cologne Philharmonic and the Cologne Opera, the first time in 45 years anyone had held that all-encompassing title. As he explains, it was "an extremely difficult job, full of responsibility."
The work was nonstop: orchestra in the morning, opera at night, and rehearsals in between. "The Germans have an extraordinary sense of the value of their own culture, and by living with it day in and day out, and talking about it and discussing it, and confronting it and being confronted by it ... I learned more in that time than I think I learned anywhere else."
Conlon moved to Paris in 1995 during a major crisis at the Opéra. He was a stabilizing presence who rapidly became an integral part of the Opéra.
"My job there was to defend the musical values and to make sure that the musical functioning of the house was as high as possible," he says.
He left behind a rejuvenated opera orchestra that ranks among the finest in the world.
And now he begins his Ravinia tenure. Not surprisingly, the conversation comes back to "Breaking the Silence." "My belief and my conviction is that if enough musicians who believe in this music will perform it, I believe that the enormous power and the ethos of that era - which is something very, very special - will emerge," he says. "It has to be brought into the repertory because that's how classical music lives, by performance, by repeated hearings."