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Conlon's Long-Term Love Affair

Mary Ellyn HuttonMay Festival music director James Conlon
Posted: May 21, 2004 - 10:42:33 PM in news_2004

(first published in The Cincinnati Post May 20, 2004)

Jerold Fink remembers a conversation on the steps of city hall in 1976.

As president of the May Festival board, Fink was there with music director James Levine as part of a presentation to the festival in connection with the U.S. bicentennial.

"He told me that he was leaving his post with the May Festival because his obligations at the Met had increased so much.

"It floored me. I didn’t know what we were going to do, because we thought James Levine - Cincinnatian, tremendous talent - would be our long term music director (he served 1974-78)."

As it turned out, Levine led them to their man, May Festival music director James Conlon.

Conlon celebrates his 25th anniversary with the May Festival this year, beginning with Handel’s "Messiah" at 8 p.m. Friday at Music Hall.

He leads an all-Wagner program Saturday. Mozart’s Requiem and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony are May 28 and 29. All are at Music Hall. May Festival Chorus director Robert Porco conducts Sunday’s non-subscription concert at the Cathedral Basilica in Covington.

On Levine’s recommendation, Fink, Steven Monder (executive director, now president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) and May Festival board member Samuel Pogue flew to Miami to hear the then unknown (and very young) Conlon.

"We fell in love with him, all three of us," said Fink. "There was absolutely no question in any of our minds. All of us just sensed the ability that was going to blossom in him."

"He was so excited," said former board president Joseph Stern, who interviewed him in Cincinnati. "His parents came. They had never been outside of New York so my wife Mary baked them chocolate chip cookies. She’s done that every year for 25 years."

Conlon himself had visited Cincinnati before. "It was my first trip away from home. I was a high school student and came with friends who had designed the costumes for a production at the Cincinnati Zoo." He had heard about the May Festival from a family friend who came every year and brought him programs.

"Talk about destiny," he said.

Conlon made his debut with the May Festival in Dvorak’s Stabat Mater in 1978. He was 28. He became music director the next season.

It has been a long term love affair.

"I would never have imagined it at the time," said Conlon, who made his New York Philharmonic debut at 24. "But I loved it so much. It’s become a part of my musical life and a part of my personal life."

Conlon had a vision for the May Festival early on, said Nancy Donovan, board president from 1994-96 and now chair of the Fine Arts Fund.

"He knew we had an identity and that we as a city lacked self confidence in the specialness of the May Festival. He really pushed on the board in the early years to think beyond our boundaries and broaden our reach. We’ve made good strides in that regard. Witness the press in New York and the European newspapers."

He has changed the way Cincinnati feels about the May Festival, Donovan said. "He has convinced us that it is unique and to be protected at all costs"

Conlon’s career has grown along with the festival. At 54, he is the much admired principal conductor of the Paris Opera (he leaves in July after 9 years) and music director designate of Chicago’s Ravinia Festival. His guest conducting card is full and he’s on everyone’s list to head one of the major U.S. orchestras (Pittsburgh and Chicago are open). "There’s always rumors," he said. "I never believe any of them until they happen."

Musicians who have worked with him marvel at his energy.

"James will be there from 9 in the morning until after 11 at night," said bass-baritone John Cheek, a May Festival regular who returns this season. "It’s all directed towards getting the best performance he can."

Conlon’s energy and commitment played itself out dramatically during the 1997 season, said Walker.

"Robert Shaw was supposed to come and conduct Brahms’ Requiem opening night, but his wife was ill and he didn’t want to leave her. We had to scramble around and get someone to conduct. James was conducting at La Scala the night before, but they are six hours ahead. We got him here via London on the Concorde, then from New York on a Quantum Chemical jet arranged through one of the board members.

"Out he came onstage, same old James. Steve Monder said to him, you’ve been so many places in the last 24 hours, don’t forget whose national anthem you’re going to play. All he needed to do was wear a trench coat, throw it on the floor and have a big red ‘S’ (Superman) on him."

Conlon’s devotion to the May Festival is an inspiration for the all-volunteer chorus, said Monder. "To have a person of James’ stature return every year because he really cares about them perpetuates their loyalty to the May Festival."

"He strives for perfection, but it’s not harsh," said Lauren Hess, a 7-year chorister from Newport. "He helps us strive for perfection as well."

The way Conlon deals with people is "just fantastic," said tenor John Aler, who has sung at 17 of Conlon’s May Festivals (and again this year). "He has a phenomenal rehearsal technique. He keeps everything very light and happy, yet it’s all work and very serious."

Conlon’s capacity for acquiring languages is legendary. Russian repertoire is "one of James’ specialties," said Cheek, who has sung some of it with him. "He speaks Russian, which is pretty scary."

Cheek calls him "a singer’s conductor."

"He really knows voices, how to work with singers and get the best performances out of them."

Conlon was unable to single out favorite moments during his 25 years with the May Festival.

"It’s almost like saying, tell me about your favorite moments with your children when they were growing up. You would never be able to say, so I look at it as a long friendship – with great colleagues on the stage, the May Festival Chorus, Bob Porco, the orchestra.

"I’ve been with this orchestra two weeks a year through three music directorships (into four now with Paavo Järvi). I’ve experienced the renovation of the hall. Steve Monder has been my colleague since the beginning. These become very, very important friendships and that’s the way I feel."

Conlon’s contract with the May Festival renews automatically every year. He has told the board "as long as you want me, I shall be with you."

"James Levine did us a great favor when he mentioned James Conlon," said Walker.

The 2004 May Festival.

Friday. Handel, "Messiah." Soprano Cynthia Haymon. Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove. Tenor John Aler. Bass-baritone John Cheek. May Festival Chorus. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. James Conlon, conductor.

Saturday. Wagner, act I, "Die Walküre," Prelude, Quintet and Finale, "Die Meistersinger." Sopranos Deborah Voigt and Jennifer, Ringo. Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi. Tenors Aler, Vinson Cole and Clifton Forbis. Cheek. Basses Jyrki Korhonen and James Morris. May Festival Chorus. CSO. Conlon.

Sunday. Stephen Paulus, "All Things Are Passing" (world premiere commission). Works by Britten, Palestrina. Mendelssohn, Walton, Parry, Wood, Stanford, Tavener and Howells. May Festival Chorus and Youth Chorus. Robert Porco and James Bagwell, conductors.

May 28. Mozart, "Regina coeli, K.276, Exsultate jubilate, K.165, Requiem (completed by Robert Levin). Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy. Grove. Aler. Cheek. May Festival Chorus. CSO. Conlon.

May 29. Mahler, Symphony No. 8 ("Symphony of a Thousand"). Sopranos Bridgett Hooks, Christine Brewer and Murphy. Mezzo-sopranos Nancy Maultsby and Grove. Tenor Gary Lakes. Baritone Donnie Ray Albert. Cheek. May Festival Chorus. CSO. Conlon.

All concerts are at 8 p.m. at Music Hall except Sunday, which is 7 p.m. at the Cathedral Basilica in Covington. Subscriptions are $36-$232 for the four Music Hall concerts, $21-$116 for one weekend or both Fridays or Saturdays. Singles are $11-$65, $22 for the Basilica. Call (513) 381-3300 or order online at www.mayfestival.com.

Personal highlights:

Every one of James Conlon’s 25 May Festivals has brought a highlight or two (or more). Having been on the spot for 19 of them, here are some of mine:

1985. Liszt’s oratorio "Christus" (soprano Benita Valente, tenor John Aler).

1986. Act I of Wagner’s "Die Walkure" (tenor Gary Lakes as Siegmund).

1987. Mendelssohn’s "Elijah" (bass Benjamin Luxon as Elijah, encored at Carnegie Hall in 1991).

1989. Excerpts from Mussorgsky’s "Kovanshchina," Rachmaninoff’s "The Bells" (bass John Cheek).

1992. Weber’s "Oberon" (soprano Deborah Voigt).

1996. Highlights from Wagner’s "Tannhäuser" and "Die Meistersinger" (soprano Margaret Jane Wray, Lakes, Cheek).

1999. Kurt Weill’s "Die Propheten" (U.S. premiere, Aler as The Rabbi).

2002. A festival of healing after the 2001 riots with spirituals by the Central State University Chorus, Beethoven’s 9th and Bernstein’s "Kaddish" Symphony (narrator Jamie Bernstein).