Off the Record: James Conlon

by Yoon Kwon, violinist

With a boyish smile and mischievous eyes, his fingers danced to the "Tuileries" movement of
Mussorgsky’s
Pictures at an Exhibition. A twelve year old violinist sitting in the first violin section of the Aspen Festival Orchestra looked up in awe.

I made my German debut under Maestro James Conlon with the Cologne Philharmonie a few years later, playing the Goldmark Violin Concerto. He was a great mentor to me in my formative years as a soloist. I still remember his words of wisdom as we walked around the cobblestone streets of Boston, worked on the Stravinsky Concerto in Aspen, and dined after concerts in Cologne.

At the Met, after his run of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he sat down with me in the press room on a cold winter afternoon. Conlon is an intelligent, eloquent speaker.

Yoon Kwon: What does a typical day look like for you?

James Conlon: For me, there is no such thing as a typical day. For instance, today is a day off. Such days are usually very hectic because I have to do all of the things I can only do when not rehearsing or performing. My life is divided equally between opera and symphony. 60% of the time I am music director and 40% of the time I am guest conductor. My time is also divided up between the USA and Europe, both of which have different profiles. When I’m in Los Angeles, as Music Director of LA Opera, I rehearse and perform, of course, but also have administrative duties: meetings, preparations, auditions, or working with young people. Being music director of any opera house is a wall-to-wall job and I love it. I spend about four to five months of the year in LA.

Photo by Chester Higgins

Photo by Chester Higgins

I’ve also been Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, with the Chicago Symphony, for 11 years. I go there for three or four weeks each summer and conduct three programs a week. It’s a marathon. Before I’ve had time to get over the previous night’s concert, I’m already rehearsing the next one. Is there time to go out and play tennis? No. It’s the same with the Cincinnati May Festival, where I’ve been Music Director for 35 years now. At the May Festival we perform big choral works over two weekends. I’ve been conducting at the Met since 1976, and when I am here, I don’t have those kinds of responsibilities, and, though not a marathon, there is a lot of rehearsing and performing. I’ve been here now for about a month, and you know how many times a week we see each other. The time goes by fast, with five to six days a week of rehearsals from 10:30 AM to 5:30 PM.

I’m a New Yorker; I was born and raised here and this is my home, even though I am away more than not. When I am here, absolutely every minute is spoken for. I have my family here: my wife, two daughters, who are 25 and 18, and two dogs. And then there are many friends, colleagues, doctor’s appointments, managers, and PR people to see. There is never enough time. I joke that I’ve had a beautiful apartment with a beautiful view of the park for over 35 years but have to travel around the world to pay for the mortgage.

When I am guest conducting in Europe, I don’t have too many additional responsibilities. I can rehearse and have the rest of the day to myself. It’s wonderful because I love Europe. Frankly, I don’t go anywhere that I don’t like anymore. I mostly return to places where I’ve conducted for as many as 35 years. I also have a lot of friends in Europe. I was Music Director of the Paris Opera for nine years, but I started conducting in Paris in 1980. I love Paris particularly. It feels like home, even though it’s been over 10 years since we left. When I return, time crunches together like an accordion and it feels as if we left yesterday. We regularly spend Christmas in Geneva with one of my wife’s sisters. I had a wonderful time there recently. Is this a normal life? I guess not. Does it have semblance to a normal life? It seems normal to me.

YK: How do you find balance in your life?

JC: The life as an artist is inherently unbalanced. It is not susceptible to the type of balance that many professions have because the artist’s inner psyche and soul is consumed day and night with music. Even when I’m walking around the streets and doing “normal” things, music is boiling in me – even in my dreams, even in my sleep. You do your best to do all of it well, but in fact it cannot be “balanced” as it is in other walks of life. I am happy when I work, but am also always slightly unsatisfied. There is something in artists that is insatiable. Even if you think your performance today was good, you have to do it well again tomorrow. My brain never stops, so I have to find a way to recharge. After a performance, it takes me several hours to wind down. These are the rhythms of a performer’s life. For instance, I like to write because it focuses me and takes me from one part of my brain to another. I write mostly articles and program notes, but I’m working on a book now. That takes me away in an interesting way. 

If I have time off, I won’t go and lie on a beach. It’s not what I want to do. Given a choice between mountains and the ocean, I choose the mountains. If I have time off, I read. It’s rare that I’m not doing anything. My life is about family, reading and writing.  Friendship is very important to me, and that time is time well spent. I learned that from my mother – she was there for her friends.

YK: I like to ask this question to everyone I interview: What percentage of your life is music?

JC: I would say that music is 80-85 percent of my life, but the consciousness of music is 99.99 percent, because no matter what I’m doing, it never stops.

YK: Let's talk about your childhood. What made you want to conduct?

JC: The first opera I saw was La Traviata and I fell in love with the experience. The second opera I saw was The Barber of Seville and I fell in love specifically with that opera. It changed my life. I was 11 years old and I became so obsessed with opera and music that I asked my mother if I could take piano lessons, not because I had an image of my becoming a pianist, but because I specifically wanted to play The Barber of Seville. Well, I found out that it’s very hard. I still find it difficult! I sang in a children’s chorus of an opera theater - not the Met - when I was 13 and I wanted to sing all the roles in the opera. It became clear to me then, that the only activity in which one can encompass the music in its entirety was conducting. My passion ignited then and has never wavered.

YK: You were so greedy!

JC: 99.99 percent!

Photo by Helge Strauss

Photo by Helge Strauss

YK: Has there ever been a point in your career when you doubted your passion for or commitment to music?

JC: Never. For me, music-making is a passion, and if one feels passionately, doubt doesn’t play a role. As soon as you doubt, it is no longer a passion. Mine was born virtually overnight and my entire life changed within a period of six months. I realized I could not live without music and that is still true today. There is no doubt in my mind, my heart, or my body. Can I conceive of my life without music? No. Will there be other things in life that interest me when I can’t conduct anymore? Absolutely, but only because there is so much I’ve put on hold. For instance, I love languages as much as music, so I’ll have something to do if and when that day comes. And if that day never comes, I will still be happy.

YK: What advice do you have for young conductors starting their career?

JC: If you don’t feel passionate about music, don’t start conducting. I hate the word “career” because it only represents an outer layer of one’s life, not the life itself. I don’t even really like the word profession, even though one must be competent. Music is more than both career and profession. It’s a way of life. It is an orientation, similar to a spiritual orientation: music-making, listening to music, loving music, sharing music, passing it on. The professional outer layer is the conducting and if you are fortunate enough to do it well, it becomes a career, but it doesn’t start the other way around. For me, everything begins and ends with that passionate relationship to music.

YK: You’ve conducted almost 300 performances here at the Met. Do you remember the first one?

JC: Of course! It’s like remembering one’s first date. The first opera I conducted at the Met was the Chagall production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. To say that the MET Orchestra is one of the greatest orchestras in the world is an understatement – the level of playing and music-making, incredible flexibility, concentration, speed, and absorption of so many styles all constitute its greatness. My respect and admiration is limitless. As a conductor you can hand something to MET Orchestra Musicians, and they run with it and make it even better.

YK: How do see your role as a conductor?

JC: I see it as a conduit for the musicians to create their sounds and their music. The first function is to try to give space to each musician’s own natural inclination to make music – coming from their own soul and instincts. The conductor can’t do anything without the orchestra. I try to surrender my ego, not only to the musicians and audience, but most of all to the piece itself. If one can do that, music flows into the soul and becomes one with it and then can be best transmitted. In other words, I try and get out of the music’s way and inspire. Of course, you don’t allow chaos, but direct, emphasize and deemphasize. Once off the podium, though, your function is over and you are again just another human being. I leave it all behind.

YK: What does music and sharing music mean to you?

JC:  There are two specific things I always keep in my mind. I remember seeing my first opera at 11 and hearing things and experiencing feelings for the first time. My life changed that night. Now, every time I get up on the podium, I think to myself, "There might be someone in the audience just like that. They might be 11, 40, 70, or 90 years old, but I have the potential to change somebody’s life." It may be your one chance to touch one person, or a hundred, so you can never phone it in. This is your moment with this piece and this is your moment to touch someone’s life. That never leaves me. Secondly, I love these pieces as I would love a friend. How do I get over missing Lady Macbeth when it will finish? I get on a plane and conduct (as it happens) Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. I don’t forget about Lady Macbeth, but it gets absorbed into the next moment in my life. Every time I conduct, I think to myself, “This may be your last chance to conduct this piece, so try to get it right.” This is how I have lived my life, always aware of its brevity.

YK: It’s been years since we’ve had a conversation like this! Now for some lighter questions: you said you love languages. How many do you speak?

JC: Aside from English, I speak German, French, and Italian fluently and can function in Spanish when I have to. My first orchestra was in Rotterdam, so I spoke Dutch for a while, but not very well. If I go to Holland, it will only come back after a glass of wine. I especially love Russian. I think it’s one of the most beautiful languages in the world, but I don’t speak it well – I still feel like a student.

YK: What is your favorite city and country?

JC: My favorite cities are New York and Paris, but don’t hold me to that. My favorite country, however, is Italy, without question.

YK: Do you have pre- and/or post-concert rituals?

JC: I try to “check-out” late in the afternoon before a performance. If I can nap, that’s best. I do that to erase everything else and to concentrate on the music that I’m about to conduct. Post-concert, it takes me several hours to wind down. In LA, because there is a bar attached to the theater, many musicians, chorus, soloists, stagehands, and even audience members gather. We have a feeling like a family. That’s a practice I have enjoyed since my time in Germany, in Cologne. You were there. You know!

YK: Yes, I remember the Italian restaurant!

JC:  That was special. I think we were invited to dinner, but normally we all just went to the bar. We would have a glass of beer (or wine, in my case) and discuss the performance. I enjoyed the camaraderie with the musicians. German orchestras are all like that.

20 years later, he still has that boyish smile. He is one of the friendliest and nicest people I have ever met: a genuine man and a genuine musician.

If you enjoyed this interview, take a look at previous installments of Off the Record, which include interviews with Pablo Heras-Casado and David Robertson. For more information about Yoon Kwon, see her website, www.yoonkwon.com. More information about James Conlon can be found at www.jamesconlon.com.