Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Conductor Blows in on a Fresh Wind from Europe

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Conductor Blows in on a Fresh Wind from Europe

Article excerpt

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 metier, 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. …

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