A new chapter for James Conlon

A month before James Conlon was set to guest conduct an April 11-13 set of concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, he released the big news that he would step down as music director of the Los Angeles Opera at the end of the 2025–26 season.

After being a music director of at least one musical organization every year since 1979, the 74-year-old conductor is ready to do other things, including devoting a considerable amount his time to promoting the enjoyment of classical music through writing and public speaking.

“I’m in a great health,” Conlon said. “I’m still hopefully at the top of my game, but I want to make sure that I’ve got some years left to me to do other things that A) I want to do and B) don’t want to regret that I didn’t do if and when I have time to reflect at the end of my life.”

One association he is not giving up his longtime tie to the CSO, which he first led in 1977 at the Ravinia Festival. The veteran conductor has led the orchestra on multiple occasions since at both Ravinia and Orchestra Hall, including serving as Ravinia’s music director from 2005 to 2015.

“One of the happiest relationships I’ve had is with the Chicago Symphony,” he said. “That is the longest, fairly continuous relationship that I have in the United States, and obviously I value that and treasure that enormously.”

One of the happiest relationships I’ve had is with the Chicago Symphony. . . . That is the longest, fairly continuous relationship that I have in the United States, and obviously I value that and treasure that enormously.

Unlike some conductors who specialize in symphonic, choral or operatic conducting, Conlon has devoted significant time to all three during his career. From 1979 through 2016, he served as music director of the renowned Cincinnati May Festival, which marked its 150th anniversary last year. During his tenure, one of the longest ever in such a position with any American classical institution, he led many of the great choral works, some of them more than once.   

He was 29 when he inherited the position from James Levine, and he expected he would stay for four or five years. “I never imagined I would spend 37 years there,” he said. “Yes, I do love that repertory, and I think the cumulative experience of having done so much gives you a perspective and a handle on it that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t devote so much time to it.”

He will lead one of those choral masterpieces April 11-13 — the English-language version of Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah, an 1846–47 oratorio that looks back to earlier baroque works in the form by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

“I love the Chicago Symphony No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3,” Conlon said, “and you also have the Chicago Symphony Chorus, which is great and which I’ve collaborated with many times, and I think the soloists are good. I’m looking forward to it very much.”

He is also set to conduct the CSO in two different all-Mozart programs this summer at Ravinia. He will lead semi-staged performances of the opera, Idomeneo, Aug. 9 and 11 and a concert Aug. 10 with both of Mozart’s G-minor symphonies – the “little” No. 25, K. 183, and “great” No. 40, K. 550 — and his Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 210, with violinist James Ehnes as soloist.

When Conlon took over as music director of the Los Angeles Opera in 2006, he had already served as general music director (1989–2003) of the City of Cologne, Germany, which included leading the Cologne Opera, and principal conductor (1995–2004) of the famed Paris Opera.

At the time, the southern California company was by far the youngest of the country’s major opera companies, having been founded just 20 years earlier. By comparison, Lyric Opera of Chicago began in 1954, and the city had earlier resident companies dating to 1910.

“We have been on the way to establishing opera as a permanent feature of cultural life in Los Angeles,” the conductor said. “That was the goal. And I believe that has happened and is happening, and I have no doubt it will continue to happen in the future after my time.”

He has led more productions than any other conductor in the company’s history — a total of 460 performances to date of 68 operas by 32 composers, including its first-ever presentation of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle.   

Conlon agreed to continue his tenure in Los Angeles through 2026, so he could mark his 20th anniversary as music director as well as the 40th anniversary of the company. “We thought that would be a great way to do it all,” he said. “It means that I will have been music director for half of its history.”

Although he will hold no other conducting post when he leaves that position, Conlon was quick to make clear that he is in no way retiring. “Being a music director is a 24/7 job wherever you are and especially in an opera house,” he said. “I want to be able to dedicate time to other things, and please bear in mind that when I leave there, I will be 76 years old.”  

He will guest conduct, and he will continue his longtime advocacy on behalf of composers who were suppressed or killed by the Nazi regime, including Alexander Zemlinsky who fled to the United States in 1938 and died four years later.

As mentioned earlier, Conlon also wants to do whatever he can to make clear to everyday people old and young how important classical music can be in their lives. When he was growing up in the 1950s and ̓60s, he recalls performing in school bands and choruses and being exposed to music-appreciation classes, but many pupils no longer have access to such opportunities.  

“When that stopped,” he said, “one of the deleterious effects on our society was that we also did not make classical music part of everyone’s general education. So, why would they go to a concert when they are 20 years old or 40 years old or 60 years old?”

The United States has more great orchestras than any other Western country and its abundant conservatories are producing hundreds of talented young classical musicians. “We have great supply and what is everybody lacking?” Conlon said. “We have demand, but it is not on a level with the supply, and that is the American paradox.”