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Life after the CSO -- López-Cobos Shifts Focus

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: May 8, 2001 - 9:33:13 PM in archives

(first published in The Cincinnati Post May 8, 2001)

"Let all your heart be on the table," said Jesús López-Cobos.

The Cincinnati Symphony music director is coaching mezzo-soprano Mary Poetschke in an aria from Massenet's opera "Werther."

Ms. Poetschke and three other members of Cincinnati Opera's Education Outreach Ensemble are taking part in a master class with López-Cobos in Music Hall's Large Rehearsal Room. It's a plum opportunity to work with one of the world's top opera conductors. López-Cobos, who retires this week after 15 years as CSO music director, was general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1981-90.

He has done opera rarely since then - he has not had the time - but when he announced his departure from the CSO in December 1998, his phone began to ring. Paris' Opera Bastille has engaged him every year through 2004, beginning in June and July with Massenet's "Manon."In November-December he conducts a new production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" at Madrid's newly re-opened Teatro Real. And Chicago's Lyric Opera, seeking a Donizetti expert for a new production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" in 2004, hired López-Cobos.

The 61-year-old Spaniard conducts the CSO in Mahler's Symphony No. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall. Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will be guest artist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, reprising her first performance with López-Cobos and the CSO in 1989. In September, he will become the CSO's first music director emeritus. Succeeding him is Estonian-born Paavo Järvi, 38.

"First of all, I love opera," said López-Cobos. "It was my diet for 10 years."

Opera will give him "more stability," he said. "As a guest conductor, you go from one orchestra to the next. Opera allows you six weeks sometimes." His home base will remain Lausanne, where he lives with his wife Brigitte.

López-Cobos is not abandoning symphony for opera. He will lead four weeks of CSO concerts next season (February and April), two weeks in 2002-03.

Although he said he has no interest in another music directorship, he will guest conduct orchestras in Spain, Japan, Poland and France through this year alone. In future seasons, he will lead the orchestras of Lisbon, Montreal, Dallas and Cologne, and make his first visit to Australia - Sydney and Melbourne.

The choice of Mahler's Fifth Symphony for his CSO valedictory has special meaning, López-Cobos said.

"It's a little like a guide to what happened in my life and my relationship with the orchestra from the beginning."

When the 46-year-old Spaniard arrived in Cincinnati for his inaugural concert as music director in September 1986, his wife Karen had just died of cancer. "I came in a very tragic moment in my life, so I started with a funeral march, just like the Mahler Fifth."

In the early 90s, the CSO, like many orchestras in the U.S., suffered a financial crisis. Its accumulated debt passed $8 million, necessitating several years of austerity. Orchestra hiring was frozen, leaving some vacancies unfilled, and López-Cobos, along with the rest of the staff, took a salary cut. Giving things a poignant edge, the CSO's 100th anniversary was approaching (1994-95), and plans had to be made if there were to be a fitting celebration. That, of course, meant money.

"We came through a lot of struggle," López-Cobos said. "This could be Mahler's second movement."

The orchestra's recovery - the books were balanced, the endowment grew to $90 million and the CSO made two successful tours of Europe - is mirrored by movements three and four, he said. "Then this optimistic ending after the Adagietto is like a new beginning. For me, it will be really an emotional ride."

What López-Cobos will miss most about the CSO is "the people in the orchestra. But because I am not leaving completely, it's not like I won't see them anymore."

As for his own future, "life has always to be a challenge. Something new, otherwise, it's routine.

"I am crying with one eye and laughing with the other."

Highlights of Jesús López-Cobos' 15-year Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra career:

Holds CSO record for: Most recordings (Telarc, 26); most concerts (564); most Carnegie Hall concerts (14).

Put CSO back in the big leagues with: First European tours since 1969 (1995, 2001); first Asian tour since 1967 (1990); 30 world premieres, 131 CSO premieres.

Other CSO firsts: First nationally televised concert (PBS, 1997); first Grammy-nominated album (Mahler Third Symphony, "best-engineered classical album," Telarc, 1998); first West Coast tours (1992, 1997); first music director emeritus.

Set CSO up for bright future by: Initiating design and construction of Music Hall's acoustical towers (1997); instituting popular Thursday evening buffet series (1992); engaging one-third of current CSO membership (34); engaging nine principal players, including concertmaster Timothy Lees; founding CSO Chamber Players (1998); extending his contract by one year to ease transition for new music director (Paavo Järvi).