Maestro James Conlon

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The two-time Grammy-winning composer and conductor explains his passion for introducing the work of composers that are not well-known to contemporary audiences.

James Conlon has conducted virtually every major American and European symphony orchestra and has also appeared with many of the world's major opera companies. Currently music director of LA Opera, Ravinia Festival (the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), he's held several major European posts and was the youngest conductor engaged for the New York Phil's subscription series. Conlon grew up in Queens, NY and attended the Aspen Institute's conducting program and the Juilliard School of music. The two-time Grammy winner has devoted himself to raising public awareness of works by composers affected by the Holocaust and committed to working with young pre-professional musicians.


Tavis: Two-time Grammy winner, James Conlon, is the conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Opera. He’s also a champion of composers whose work is not so well known to contemporary audiences.

He created “Recovered Voices” which feature music by composers silenced by the Nazi regime. And next month, he’ll conduct the New York premiere of “The Ordering of Moses” with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

This oratorio combines the story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom with Negro spirituals. It was written back in 1937 by R. Nathaniel Dett whose achievements were hijacked by racism. Let’s take a look first at James Conlon conducting the Cincinnati orchestra and chorus.


Tavis: Good to have you on the program.

James Conlon: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Let me start by talking about the state of opera, if I can. I want to jump right in on this ’cause this is fascinating. I’ve been kind of following this as opera fans have, I suspect around the country for the last few years, and the opera is in trouble, it seems. And I want to just kind of – I wrote this ’cause I want to make sure. I just put some context to our conversation here to begin.

So the world of opera is in peril, as I said a moment ago. San Diego’s opera will fold now after 49 years. These are the closures of late. The New York City Opera, 2013 closure. Baltimore Opera, 2009 closure. The opera, Boston, 2011. Opera San Antonio, 2012. Clearly, you still believe in it because you’re still doing it. But what’s happening with opera?

Conlon: Well, despite of all of that, in the long run, I’m still optimistic about the future. You know, nothing’s happening to opera. It’s not that. It’s institutions and these are economic issues. Opera is very expensive. It’s a very expensive art form. What’s happened basically in our country is that, in the last 30 years, arts were taken out of schools. Programs were taken out of school.

So now we have adults who were not exposed – I’m old enough to remember. I was in a band, I played the violin, I had a tonette. We had music appreciation. I grew up in New York City public schools. Everybody had that.

Now when that stopped in the 80s or gradually started to diminish, well, we’ve lost the basic, the beginning for all of our population. Now there’s nothing elite about opera. There’s nothing elitist. It’s not for special people or anything like that. It’s for everybody and I’m a good example of that.

I’m just a normal guy. I just happened to fall in love with classical music and opera when I was very young. And I’m grateful to have grown up in New York because we had all the opportunities. Those opportunities are not around, so we’re not building the audience and that’s part of what has happened. I think if there are individual – it’s very sad about San Diego, very sad about city opera.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what’s going to happen to every opera company in the country. And I still personally hope that some of those situations can be turned around.

Tavis: But if it’s happening in major cities, James – I think you’re right to suggest it won’t happen to every opera, thank goodness.

But if it’s happening in these major markets, these markets, shall we say, where there’s more cosmopolitanism, if it’s being wrecked in these markets, what gives you reason to believe? Where does the hope come from that sustains you to do what you do?

Conlon: Well, don’t forget that New York City is a special issue because the Metropolitan Opera was right there across the plaza from the City Opera, and that’s a big factor.

I don’t know enough about the particulars in San Diego, but the issue is there’s been an economic crisis. You know, the arts have been sponsored since the time of the Renaissance. I mean, you know, the Medicis made Florence and the Renaissance what it was.

So there’s always been a need for support and that is still true and it’s true in our country as well. And it’s very important that we do it. It’s very important that we continue to fight. I, for instance, will never stop fighting. I believe deeply in the beauty of this art form and I believe it’s for everybody.

I don’t believe it’s for the elite or a so-called elite. It’s music for everybody. If you bring children and you don’t say you’re going to hate this, you just bring them. I believe they will react naturally to this music. They need to be exposed. We need to expose everybody.

Tavis: So tell me about this piece that you’re about to premier.

Conlon: Well, as you’ve gathered, I like to find opportunities to provide the public to hear pieces that they do not know. Somebody once said to me, you know, an old book read for the first time is a new book. It doesn’t matter to me if it was written 100 years ago, 200 years ago.

It if has something of substance, if it has something appealing, if it has something to say, it’s important that we hear it. Now R. Nathaniel Dett is a composer who is of enormous substance and a very interesting man. I’ve actually never been at a concert where there’s a piece of Nathaniel Dett.

Now he was one of the first African – well, he was Canadian American, but he was educated fully in the United States. He was a very erudite man, made a great contribution. He wrote this piece in 1932 and it took him until 1937 to get it produced.

It was premiered by the Cincinnati May Festival where I’m music director and was given a national broadcast for the opening. This was quite an event. Thereby hangs the tale. That national broadcast was interrupted three-quarters of the way through for reasons that are obscure, although we can imagine them.

In the midst of the broadcast – and you can hear this. I mean, you can go on YouTube and hear this happen. The announcer comes on and says, “Due to previous programming, we will now discontinue the performance at the Cincinnati May Festival.”

This was clearly the act of persons who were racists and who influence and, for whatever reason, were resentful of the fact that an African American’s music was being performed on national radio. Well, that’s unacceptable, of course.

So the piece, although it was very successful and the (inaudible) from the hall has been attested to by the journalists and by the reviewers that we have, it didn’t get heard again until the 1950s where it was produced the second time in Cincinnati with none less than Leontyne Price, and there it sat.

Well, I found about it a few years ago and I said, you know, this is a perfect thing for us to be bringing to New York City at Carnegie Hall when we visit there in May. I wanted to bring an American program, a contemporary work of John Adams. John Adams is one of the most eminent composers in America today.

I think that that’s a good way of expressing it, but I also wanted to show what the May Festival has accomplished over its very long history. It is the oldest choral festival in the United States with many premiers, and I think this one by Nathaniel Dett is a very important contribution.

Tavis: You threw me at first. I was waiting for you to finish and I’m glad you turned that corner ’cause you started out describing what happened that night to Mr. Dett’s performance as obscure, and there’s nothing obscure about it to my mind. It was flat out racist is what it was.

Conlon: Exactly.

Tavis: Nothing obscure about that. There must be plenty of other pieces that we’ve never heard from all kinds of composers including, of course, composers of color that have been kind of pushed to the corners collecting dust on the shelf somewhere because it wasn’t given the respect it initially deserved.

And there’s not been a James Conlon to bring it to the rest of us so that we can be exposed to it. Is that your sense? There’s a bunch of stuff that we just haven’t heard?

Conlon: Oh, there’s so much that we haven’t heard coming from all sources that I could fill up the rest of my life doing just that. Now, of course, you know, in my day job is to do Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart and I love all of that. But I think that it’s incumbent on all of us who have the opportunity to bring music of value to the audience and to the public that we should do that.

Tavis: You mentioned Leontyne Price, of course, one of the greats, no doubt about that. I wonder what your take is on the status, the presence or lack thereof, of people of color in opera today. So we’re talking about Mr. Dett. This is back in the 1930s. How much progress do you think we’ve made?

Conlon: In terms of singers, the opera world is very open because we are all desperate to get great voices and there are so many great voices of African Americans. Fortunately, that has broken down a lot of the limits, less so for the men, strangely enough.

I mean, for the women, it’s been, you know, Leontyne – well, I permit myself to say Leontyne because we worked together and I adore her. That was one of the great experiences of my young life to work with her. She, of course, led the way and I think she’s opened that door to many others.

It’s a little bit slower for African American males and I don’t know if that’s changing as rapidly as it ought to be. But there are so many great voices out there that that’s important. As composers, there are few and fewer.

Now you will remember when Scott Joplin suddenly became a household word 30 years ago, maybe less. I believe in the case of our Nathaniel Dett there is enough music to fill several concert halls and should be done.

Tavis: I want to close on this note. What’s your hope that the rest of us will take away from your fighting so hard to expose us to the stuff that we have no idea about?

Conlon: Well, my hope, as the same with the composers whose music or who were suppressed by Nazis, that there is so much valuable art that we tend to be lazy a little bit by listening always to the same things we know, which I not bad.

I understand that, but my hope is that we’ll keep open ears and that people listen to music in a way without any preconceptions. Not to come in with inhibitions or I should like this, I should appreciate that.

Nobody asks the person who goes to the movies, did you appreciate it? They say, did you like it? How did you feel about it? It’s exactly the same with classical music. I believe passionately that it’s for everybody.

Tavis: Esa-Pekka Salonen was here not too long ago and we’ve had all kinds of, you know, great conductors come through this show. I am always struck by the fact that the people who enjoy classical music, to your point, want to hear the same stuff over and over and over again. Now it doesn’t get much better than Beethoven, so I can understand why you’d want to hear Beethoven regularly and Brahms and the list goes on.

I totally get that, but I wonder why it is, to your mind, we are, those of us who classical music lovers, so closed off to other stuff? Why are we so closed off to new stuff? Why does it have to be either/or versus both/and?

Conlon: Well, it doesn’t have to be and it shouldn’t be. I think it’s part of the nature that classic music is music that gets better and more meaningful every time you hear it. So we tend to go back over and over and over again, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.

But we still have to keep ourselves open to what’s new. And I fully agree that – I mean, I know that Esa-Pekka who, of course, is my colleague, believes very strongly that people have to be listening to new things and I agree with him as well.

It’s in the nature that classical music grows on you with every repeated hearing, so it’s natural that people will sit back after a while and say, okay, I just want to hear what I know.

Tavis: Well, the people in New York are lucky. They can get to Carnegie Hall and hear the work of R. Nathaniel Dett. I look forward to hearing it myself. But in the meantime, good to have you on.

Conlon: Thank you so much.

Tavis: James Conlon, good to have you here.

Conlon: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Tim Conway: I would like to say congratulations to Tavis for getting his star on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not on Hollywood Boulevard, but it’s on a little cross street parallel to Hollywood Boulevard. And he certainly deserves it. Did I say that right? He certainly, oh, desserts it. And my utmost congratulations [sigh].

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Last modified: July 9, 2014 at 10:25 pm