The Conlon Era Begins Acclaimed Conductor Prepares to Put His Stamp on Ravinia Festival

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Byline: Bill Gowen Daily Herald Classical Music Critic

Ravinia Festival

Where: 200 Ravinia Park Road, just east of Green Bay Road and just north of Lake-Cook Road, Highland Park

When: Pop/rock season begins at 8 p.m. today with Cheap Trick; Chicago Symphony Orchestra season begins June 24; Jazz in June runs Thursday through June 18

Tickets: Lawn and pavilion tickets vary from concert to concert

Phone: (847) 266 5100 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday or visit www.ravinia.org

Two years ago, New York native James Conlon was named to succeed Christoph Eschenbach as music director of the Ravinia Festival, effective this season.

Well, the 2005 Ravinia season is here, and Conlon is ready to put his personal stamp on an institution with which he has been associated since first appearing as a guest conductor in 1977.

Conlon will be on the podium when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra begins its annual summer residency at Ravinia June 24-26. In all, he'll conduct 13 concerts in his first season.

"I've been looking forward to this day for a long time, ever since Welz (Kauffman, Ravinia's president and CEO) first came to me and said, 'Would you like to be the music director of the Ravinia Festival?' " Conlon said. "I told him I'd just be delighted, given my many, many years of association with Ravinia."

Other than the music directorship of the Cincinnati May Festival, where he celebrated his 25th anniversary last spring, Conlon has spent most of the past two decades in Europe.

Last July, he wound up an acclaimed tenure with the Paris Opera, where he conducted more than 350 performances of 32 operas. He also was general music director of Cologne, Germany, from 1989-2002, where he was in charge of that city's symphony orchestra and opera company. He also was music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands (1983-91).

Now, the move to Ravinia, along with the music directorship of the Los Angeles Opera, which Conlon begins in 2006-07, signals a return to the United States as the main focus of his career.

Conlon's personal stamp on the festival will be immediate, when he launches three artistic initiatives during the CSO's June 24-26 weekend: a Gustav Mahler symphony cycle, which will continue over the next several years; "Breaking the Silence: Viktor Ullmann," in which Ravinia begins a series of concerts devoted to the music of composers who were victims of the Holocaust; and "Prelude to Mozart's 250th," the start of Ravinia's three-year celebration of the great composer's birth on Jan. 27, 1756.

"I'm a 'cycle person,' which means I like long relationships and long musical ideas, as well as long personal ideas," Conlon said.

"Mahler is someone I can't live without. I counted them up once, and I've done something like 250 or so performances of his music on a professional level. I've lived with Mahler all my life."

Conlon will conduct Mahler's Symphony No. 1 on June 24, and the mighty "Resurrection" Symphony (No. 2) the following evening, the latter with the Chicago Symphony Chorus.

The "Prelude to Mozart's 250th" cycle will include a complete traversal of his piano concertos, beginning June 26 when Richard Goode and Ieva Jokubaviciute are soloists for the concertos Nos. 5 and 27.

"We realized that coming into the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth in early 2006, we couldn't do everything (Mozart composed more than 600 works). But a piano concerto cycle, which I have done twice previously, is something that has given me enormous satisfaction in the past," Conlon said. Conlon's third long-range Ravinia project, "Breaking the Silence," is perhaps his most personal in light of his long conducting career in Europe.

"It is extremely dear to my heart, and one to which I feel a great commitment," Conlon said. "It is the presentation of music by those composers whose lives were affected by the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and '40s. …