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Expatriate Comes Back To Conduct, Reflect On Music

October 15, 1987|CHRIS PASLES | Times Staff Writer

Conductor James Conlon doesn't buy the standard line that unappreciated American artists must move to Europe to make a reputation.

"I had all the opportunities in the world (here)," the 37-year-old New York City native and conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic said in a phone interview this week. "I had a career in America from my early 20s, conducting absolutely every major orchestra in America. . . . I was not at all dissatisfied. I just love life in Europe more."

The conductor will make his first local appearance with the Dutch orchestra at 8 tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa and at 8 p.m. Friday at El Camino College in Torrance. (The programs will be different, although pianist Bella Davidovich will be soloist on each.)

Conlon's European career recently took another major leap forward when he was appointed chief conductor of the Cologne Opera, beginning in 1989. His contract with the Rotterdam orchestra--he is in his fourth season with the Dutch ensemble--also has been extended though 1991. He will hold both positions concurrently.

But his American career isn't stagnating, either. He will start a three-year Verdi cycle at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1988, continue his eighth season as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival and conduct "Boris Godunov" this season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Conlon laughed as he recalled his first trip to Europe while still a student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

"I thought I would go for a summer and get all cultured-up," he laughed. "Of course, it was a thrilling experience. I'd seen enough and been stimulated enough to motivate me for 10 years, but I wanted to go back again and again. . . . A decade wasn't enough. I wanted to be there all the time. Eventually it shows in your work."

Conlon explained: "As an artist, 99% of my work is dealing with an an imported culture. Classical music is basically an imported culture . . . even the music not specifically born there. The whole tradition is a European invention, cultivated over the centuries. That culture is what is written in between the notes of every piece."

However, Conlon decried what he termed the "general tendency in the 20th Century to more and more divorce music . . . from the attendant spiritual, emotional and philosophical cosmos from which (it was) born--and to view more and more music as a collection of sounds, colors, structures--things, in other words.

"I don't believe in this type of approach for the simple reason that art and great arts for many centuries have always grown out of a unified human view that included man's spiritual life, his philosophical outlook, and you cannot now divorce that from it, even though some of those world views are out of fashion."

That viewpoint is typical of a conductor who considers his job as not to "impose my personality on the piece, but to surrender . . . to the piece so that . . . (it) flows through me, from the composer, through the orchestra, to the listener."

Conlon described the process of "surrendering" as combining a "general musical sensitivity, general poetic sensitivity and awareness and a willingness to search for a meaning outside yourself" and with the "technique" of transmitting it.

"The transmission is more a practical question," he said. "How (to do it) here as opposed to there, with this group as opposed to that group, in America as opposed to Italy, Holland or Germany."

Complicating the process are the differences between orchestras, Conlon said.

"Orchestras have an almost immediate identification with their own music, stated or unstated, whether they know it or not. I've had the experience with the Orchestre National de France, of seeing a piece of Debussy or Ravel come alive without saying a word. Why? Because so much of that music is in their blood. It's just there. . . .

"You might do the same piece in Germany and England and find yourself rehearsing to produce feelings and colors that the players are capable of playing but don't come idiomatically or naturally."

Conlon doesn't expect these cultural differences to last forever, however.

"There's a very slow process of all the world orchestras starting to sound more and more similar. That's both good and bad, but inevitable, just the way it's happening in life. There is so much more communication between these cultures that slowly these barriers (are breaking) down. But along with the barriers is lost some essential cultural and ethnic identification."

Conlon, however, feels that his Dutch orchestra straddles these traditions.

"One of the great advantages of Holland and an orchestra like the Rotterdam is that Holland stands at the crossroads of these cultures and has the ability to digest French and German traditions," he said. "The Rotterdam Philharmonic is a very cosmopolitan orchestra, with players from 17 or 18 countries. It is one of few orchestras that can play French and German music equally well."

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