James Conlon, one of today’s most versatile and respected conductors, has cultivated a vast symphonic, operatic and choral repertoire. He has conducted virtually every major American and European symphony orchestra since his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1974. Through worldwide touring, an extensive discography and videography, numerous essays and commentaries, frequent television appearances and guest speaking engagements, he is one of classical music’s most recognized interpreters.
Conlon is music director of the Los Angeles Opera (since 2006), where he recently extended his contract through 2025, and artistic adviser of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (since 2021). He has been principal conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Torino, Italy (2016-20); principal conductor of the Paris Opera (1995-2004); general music director of the City of Cologne, Germany (1989-2003), simultaneously leading the Gürzenich Orchestra and the Cologne Opera, and music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (1983-91).
Conlon has served as the music director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony (2005-15), and is now music director laureate of the Cincinnati May Festival, the oldest U.S. choral festival, where he was music director for 37 years (1979-2016), one of the longest tenures of any director of an American classical music institution. As a guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, he has led more than 270 performances since his 1976 debut. He also has conducted at leading opera houses and festivals, including the Wiener Staatsoper, Salzburg Festival, La Scala, Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, Mariinsky Theatre, Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Teatro Comunale di Bologna and Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
At LA Opera since 2006, Conlon has led more performances than any other conductor in the company’s history — to date, nearly 400 performances of more than 50 different operas by 20-plus composers. Highlights of this tenure include conducting the company’s first Ring Cycle, recently aired in a marathon webcast celebrating the performances’ 10th anniversary; initiating the groundbreaking Recovered Voices series, an ongoing commitment to staging masterpieces of 20th-century European opera suppressed by the Third Reich, and spearheading Britten 100/LA, a citywide celebration honoring the centennial of the composer’s birth.
While the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home of LA Opera, was closed due to the pandemic, Conlon conducted the company’s live-streamed, socially distanced production, staged at the Colburn School, of The Anonymous Lover by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prominent Black composer in 18th-century France. The performance was presented as an online-only event in fall 2020 and marked the work’s West Coast premiere. The pavilion reopened in June 2021 with Conlon conducting the company premiere of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, as LA Opera became the first major American opera company to perform live in its own theater since the coronavirus outbreak. The performance was subsequently released online for at-home viewing. During LA Opera’s 2021-22 season, Conlon will conduct three operas long absent from the company’s repertory: Verdi’s Il trovatore, which opens the season; Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and Verdi’s Aida. He also conducts John Neumeier’s ballet adaptation of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, performed at L.A. Opera for the first time.
Conlon’s first season as artistic adviser of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra includes three weeks of concerts, starting with an October 2021 program of music by historically marginalized composers. The featured works are Alexander Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), which is the piece that sparked his interest in suppressed music from the early 20th century, and William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, which reflects a theme of celebrating works by American composers neglected due to their race. He returns in February 2022 for performances that will feature Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony and the final scene of Wagner’s Die Walküre, with guest artists Christine Goerke and Greer Grimsley.
The BSO season concludes in June 2022 with Conlon conducting an orchestra co-commission from Wynton Marsalis, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Beatrice Rana and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (Leningrad). In addition to leading these performances, Conlon will help ensure the continued artistic quality of the orchestra and fill many duties off the podium, including those related to artistic personnel, such as filling important vacancies.
Additional highlights of Conlon’s season include Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at Rome Opera, Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at New National Theatre of Tokyo, the Paris Opera’s Gala Lyrique with Renée Fleming, concerts with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony and works by Beethoven and Bernstein), Gürzenich Orchester Köln (Sinfoniettas by Zemlinsky and Korngold), Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra (works by Shostakovich and Zemlinsky) and at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
Conlon’s 2021-22 season follows a spring and summer in which he was highly active amid the reopening of many venues to live performances. These engagements included concerts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna and RAI National Symphony Orchestra. He also led a series of performances in Spain scheduled around World Music Day (June 21). In Madrid, over two days, he conducted the complete symphonies of Schumann and Brahms with four different Spanish orchestras: the Orquesta Nacional de España, Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León and Joven Orquesta Nacional de España. He subsequently conducted the latter at the Festival de Granada and Seville’s Teatro de la Maestranza. Additional summer 2021 engagements included the Aspen, Napa, Ravello and Ravinia festivals.
To call attention to lesser-known works of composers silenced by the Nazi regime, Conlon has devoted himself to extensive programming of this music throughout Europe and North America. In 1999, he received the Vienna-based Zemlinsky Prize for bringing that composer’s music to international attention; in 2013, he was awarded the Roger E. Joseph Prize at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for his efforts to eradicate racial and religious prejudice and discrimination; in 2007, he received the Crystal Globe Award from the Anti-Defamation League. His work on behalf of suppressed composers led to the launch of the OREL Foundation, an invaluable resource on the topic for music lovers, students, musicians and scholars; the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices at the Colburn School, and a recent virtual TEDx Talk titled “Resurrecting Forbidden Music.”
Conlon is an enthusiastic advocate of public scholarship and cultural institutions as forums for the exchange of ideas and inquiry into the role music plays in our shared humanity and civic life. At LA Opera, he leads pre-performance talks, drawing upon musicology, literary studies, history and social sciences to contemplate — together with his audience — the enduring power and relevance of opera and classical music in general. Additionally, he frequently collaborates with universities, museums and other cultural institutions, and works with scholars, practitioners and community members across disciplines. His appearances throughout the country as a speaker on a variety of cultural and educational topics are widely praised.
His extensive discography and videography can be found on the Bridge, Capriccio, Decca, EMI, Erato and Sony Classical labels. His recordings of LA Opera productions have received four Grammy Awards, two respectively for John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Additional highlights include an ECHO Klassik Award-winning cycle of operas and orchestral works by Alexander Zemlinsky; a CD/DVD release of works by Viktor Ullmann, which won the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, and the world-premiere recording of Liszt’s oratorio St. Stanislaus.
Conlon holds four honorary doctorates and has received many other awards. He was one of the first five recipients of the Opera News Awards, and was honored by the New York Public Library as a Library Lion. He was named Commendatore Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana by Sergio Mattarella, president of the Italian Republic. He also was named Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2002, personally accepted France’s highest distinction, the Legion d’Honneur, from Jacques Chirac, then president of the French Republic.
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