James Conlon vividly remembers when classical music first captivated his heart.
“I was 11 years old,” says Conlon. “It was a performance of (Giuseppe Verdi’s opera) ‘La Traviata.’ I felt a spark. From that moment, I became interested in any and all classical music I could get my hands on.”
Conlon grew up in New York City as the fourth born of five children. His family had no formal musical training, but they eagerly championed his early pursuits. He credits his early interest to the music appreciation classes that were standard for every public school student. Another boon for his budding passion for classical music was the smorgasbord of live concerts that were readily available in his hometown of New York City, which he eagerly attended when he could.
Eventually, most of these esteemed institutions whose performances Conlon relished would later welcome him to the conductor’s podium. They helped launch a career that marked him as one of the preeminent interpreters of the operatic, choral and symphonic repertoire.
In 1974, Conlon made his debut leading the New York Philharmonic to widespread acclaim. Two years later, in 1976, he debuted as a guest conductor with the Metropolitan Opera. His debut marked the first of more than 270 performances with The Met.
Conlon’s popularity on the podium extended beyond American audiences. He conducted at the world’s leading opera houses and festivals, including the Wiener Staatsoper, the Salzburg Festival, La Scala and Covent Garden. In fact, roughly half of Conlon’s career has been based in Europe, where he helmed a veritable who’s who of Europe’s most prominent ensembles, including the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Torino, Italy; the Paris Opera; the City of Cologne, Germany’s Gürzenich Orchestra and Cologne Opera; and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.
Today, American audiences know him best for his pioneering vision as the music director of LA Opera, a post he assumed in 2006. During his tenure, he has led more than 400 performances of 50 different operas and, now at age 70, maintains a following for his engaging podcasts and virtual content.
Recovering the Past
Not even the global COVID-19 pandemic can slow down Conlon. With LA Opera last fall, Conlon navigated COVID’s safety restrictions to record a livestreamed, socially distant performance of “The Anonymous Lover,” a little-known opera by a Mozart contemporary, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prominent Black composer in 18th-century France. Saint-Georges’ artistic achievements as a prolific composer and virtuosic violinist earned him celebrity status during his lifetime but were largely forgotten following his death in 1799.
The fact that Saint-Georges’ legacy was expunged from history for two centuries troubles Conlon deeply. In fact, resurrecting great works of music by composers who were disallowed their rightful place in history, due to their race or other influences, has become Conlon’s labor of love and life mission.
“About 30 years ago, I became passionately interested in a single composer, and this led me to become familiar with his contemporaries who lived from about 1900 to 1945,” says Conlon. “This study introduced me to an enormous volume of work that was neglected because it was banned (by the Nazi regime).”
The injustice spurred Conlon to create the OREL Foundation, an online repository for information about composers whose voices and works were suppressed by the Nazi regime.
The website is intended to garner interest and encourage performances of their forgotten works. In the same spirit, Conlon launched the “Recovered Voices” series with LA Opera in 2007, which features operas by composers who were affected by the Holocaust.
Music for All
Conlon’s quest for equity and remedying injustices in classical music is a passion shared by Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s visionary and beloved music director. Alsop’s contract expires at the end of the 2020-2021 season. Through 14 memorable seasons, Alsop became known for diversifying the BSO’s repertoire and engaging the community in exciting ways. She also raised the BSO’s artistic profile to new heights. As Music Director Laureate and OrchKids founder, Marin will be conducting three programs per season through 2025 and 2026.
Her legacy will be a tough act to follow. But if anyone is poised to stand in the gap, it’s James Conlon. He assumes the role of artistic advisor in the 2021-2022 season for a three-year term. In this role, he will lead three concert weeks per year as well as provide stability to the organization as it embarks on a multiyear search for a new music director.
“We are delighted to welcome James Conlon to the BSO family,” remarks BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome. “The appointment of James Conlon as artistic advisor … is a wonderful testament to those in Baltimore, Maryland, and beyond that the BSO’s positive momentum continues.
Tune Into BSO Sessions
Maestro James Conlon hosts a BSO Sessions that focuses on highlighting “recovered voices” of the classical repertoire. Catch the premiere on Feb. 17 at BSOmusic.org.