The Essential James Conlon
By Richard S. Ginell
I first saw James Conlon, then just 29, at the Hollywood Bowl in July 1979 leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an intense, precise, triumphant performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 that woke the orchestra up from the summer doldrums. I immediately thought — and wrote — that this guy was going places.
But thereafter, we didn’t see much of him in Southern California, not for decades. Although he had racked up other prestigious domestic gigs by the time he turned 30, his career didn’t really take off until he made Europe his base. He became the principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, then the general music director of the city of Cologne, music director of the Cologne Opera and Gürzenich Orchestra, and principal conductor of the Opéra National de Paris.
Ultimately, Conlon returned to Los Angeles to stay in 2006 when he succeeded Kent Nagano as music director of LA Opera. Immediately, he took a full hands-on approach. An energetic dynamo, Conlon seemed to be everywhere — conducting operas, doing all of the pre-performance lectures which became entertainingly informative attractions in themselves, speaking about music and other topics across the region, working with young people.
He wanted to stamp LA Opera as a Wagner company — and in 2010 managed to lead the first fully-staged, locally-produced, complete Ring cycle in not only the company’s history but in Southern California, period. There were other enterprising Conlon projects — the “Recovered Voices” Initiative to exhume works by composers who were persecuted by the Nazis and subsequently forgotten, a city-wide festival honoring the centenary of Benjamin Britten in 2013, a “Figaro Unbound” festival in 2015 centered around operas based on the three Beaumarchais Figaro plays.
Eager to get back indoors as the COVID-19 pandemic waned in California, Conlon led LA Opera’s return to its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion main stage June 6 with a stirring performance of Stravinsky’s “waxworks opera,” Oedipus Rex, and he is conducting four productions in the welcome-back 2021–2022 season. Recently, he also found the time to serve as principal conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra of Turin, Italy, and, starting in September, as artistic advisor for the Baltimore Symphony.
While Conlon’s discography has its share of standard repertoire, it is most notable for its extensive selection of “Recovered Voices” pieces — a passion ignited by accident when he heard a broadcast of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau on his car radio while driving home after conducting a performance at Cologne Opera. He went on to record nine albums overflowing with all of the little-known Zemlinsky orchestral, lieder, and choral works, along with three of the eight operas, for EMI Classics. His time at LA Opera also produced several audio and video recordings of “Recovered Voices” rarities.
“When I started recording over 35 years ago, I tried to make a contribution to the world by actually recording things that are under-recorded or not recorded,” Conlon told me during an interview for the Los Angeles Times in 2017. “I’ve never made a recording of a Beethoven symphony or a Brahms symphony. Does the world need another Brahms cycle? Not really.”