Q&A with James Conlon

by Kayla Moore


What projects have you been working on since your last May Festival appearance?

I am very happy to return to the May Festival, now as Music Director Laureate, after my 37 years as Music Director. To be reunited with the May Festival Chorus is especially important to me. A little over a year ago I returned to the Symphony in the newly renovated Music Hall. But this is the first time all three of the major constituents are together: Chorus, Orchestra and the May Festival public. It gives me great joy to be among everyone here in Cincinnati again.

My life is much as it was during most of the many years I served at the May Festival. I continue into my 13th year as Music Director of Los Angeles Opera, where, together with General Director Plácido Domingo, we provide the city with a very exciting and challenging program. In the meantime, I have become Principal Conductor the National Orchestra of the RAI Torino. It is Italy’s only remaining radio symphonic orchestra and it has a tradition going back to the 1930s. Every week our concerts are broadcast nationally (the RAI is the equivalent of the British BBC) and a number of them televised as well. I still split my time equally between the U.S. and Europe, and between symphonic and opera. I do very much miss Cincinnati, and though I certainly still conduct choral music in other contexts, I must say there is no equivalent to the May Festival.

How did you choose the works you programmed for the “Games of Thrones” concert, and what common threads do you see among them?

When I was Music Director, it was my responsibility to establish a program, hopefully coherent and varied, for two weeks each year. I am now a guest and take into consideration the goals as they are defined by the artistic administration and Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena. I like the combination of dramatic storytelling that involves chorus, soloists and orchestra. There is Gustav Mahler’s pseudo-fairy tale (Das klagende Lied), a haunting mix of the biblical Cain and Abel story and Hamlet. There is the devil and heavenly choirs (Mefistofele), and there are real people, the Russian populace, and the coronation of a Medieval Czar (Prologue to Boris Godunov). And the literary roots behind the musical realizations are drawn from Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin.

There are five soloists on this program in addition to the Chorus. Is there anyone you’re especially looking forward to working with on this concert?

I know all five soloists and, as I chose them, I am hopeful that the public will enjoy them as much as I think they will. Taylor Raven and Sarah Vautour are both members of the Young Artists Program at Los Angeles Opera. Richard Trey Smagur first sang for me at the Steans Institute during my years as Music Director of the Ravinia Festival. It gives me particular pleasure to appear alongside Morris Robinson and Donnie Ray Albert, both artists with whom I have collaborated over many years and in many cities. Both have made significant contributions to the May Festival and to the cultural life of Cincinnati. n