James Conlon on Board for Ravinia's 'One Score, One Chicago'

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

James Conlon on Board for Ravinia's 'One Score, One Chicago'


Byline: Bill Gowen

James Conlon understands what a privilege it is to conduct the world's greatest orchestras and appear at the greatest opera houses.

He now takes over the music directorship of the Ravinia festival with that humility intact and with a larger mission in mind than simply stepping onto the podium and waving a baton.

Conlon was here last week for his formal introduction to the media and to help Ravinia announce the project for the second year of its "One Score, One Chicago" initiative, which in 2004 will feature Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's Ninth Symphony ("From the New World").

"Obviously, I've been with the Ravinia Festival as a guest conductor since 1977 and have enjoyed the thrill of conducting the CSO for however many weeks," the New York native said. "I always felt a strong bond here. But I guess it's when you get to be 50, you start thinking about giving something back to where you came from."

Conlon minces no words in describing what he labels his "main mission in life" - to find ways to build the audience for classical music back up to where it was two or three generations ago.

"One of the biggest and most important issues for me now is very simply realizing that we not only must help more people to attend classical music events, but to find out why we don't appear to be preparing our country for this serious lack," he said.

Conlon feels you must look past some of the obvious influences, such as the current weak economy, that are affecting the classical music business, and dig deeper into why the audience has thinned out over the past two decades.

"We're probably the country that's now producing more great musicians on a higher level than any other country," he said. "We have more great orchestras - I don't know if we numerically have more orchestras than any other country - but I can tell you, I have conducted more than 75 or 80 orchestras around the world and we have more great orchestras in this country.

"We have several great opera companies along with very many fine opera companies," Conlon added. "And in general, over the last 20- 25 years, opera has grown enormously in the United States - and chamber music has also grown enormously."

So here's the paradox, according to Conlon: More world-class musicians are being trained here, but their performances are not being heard by proportionally larger American audiences.

"Despite our ability to produce all these great musicians, we are not producing significantly greater audiences, and this is a serious and interesting problem," Conlon said. "Often, when I'm with an orchestra I hear the same thing: 'Well, we're having a problem with the public, not getting people to fill the seats.'

"That's a crime, and I don't think it is solved by Scotch Tape methods," he said. "The basic problem is that in the last 25-30 years other factors have interrupted the natural flow of education - passing music on through education, particularly in our public schools. …

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James Conlon on Board for Ravinia's 'One Score, One Chicago'
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