Founded in 1931 in Turin, Piedmont region, by Italy’s public service broadcaster, the RAI National Symphonic Orchestra has absorbed the radio orchestras of Rome, Naples, and Milan, and attracted some of the best conductors in the world. Among them, James Conlon has recently been appointed the Orchestra’s principal conductor, a position never held by an American before.
Born in New York City, where he attended the prestigious Juilliard School and officially debuted with the Philharmonic in 1974, in his career Conlon has directed major symphony orchestras in the U.S. and Europe and performed in the greatest opera houses worldwide, including the Paris National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome. Since 2006, he has been music director of the Los Angeles Opera, also giving pre-concert lectures and working with students from the Colburn School, USC, and UCLA.
Led by the idea of music as an instrument of personal as well as of social growth, he has committed to raising awareness of less known composers, who have suffered from racial or religious discrimination. Thanks to his efforts in this direction, The OREL Foundation and the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices at the Colburn School were created, and he was honored with several awards such as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Los Angeles (2010), the Music Institute of Chicago’s Dushkin Award (2009), the Medal of the American Liszt Society (2008), and Italy’s Premio Galileo 2000 Award in Florence (2008) for his contribution to music and peace.
This year, James Conlon also opened the 58th edition of the renowned Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi with Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. In Spoleto, he made his first public appearance in 1970, leading a single opera performance at age 21.
Maestro, you will be the first American to hold the position of principal conductor of the Italian National Symphonic Orchestra. What did persuade you to accept the offer? Have you ever been to Turin before and, if so, how do you like it?
It is no secret that I love Italy, inclusive of its music, culture and language. Spoleto, where I conducted my first Opera performance, was also my first step on European soil. Despite having been conducting in Italy as a guest for about forty years, I have never held a position there. When Cesare Mazzonis, artistic director of the Orchestra asked me if I would be interested, it was not hard to decide. I have conducted the Orchestra several times in the past years, and the chemistry between us was immediate. Turin is a beautiful city, elegant, full of culture life and a century-old tradition of classical music.
Is there a particular experience or performance that you have liked the most in your career?
I am fortunate to have spent my life doing exactly what I set out to do: conducting classical music. I have balanced that life between opera, symphonic and choral music. I have balanced it between being a music director and guest conductor, between Europe and the United States. The experience, which is the most striking to me is that a life of classical music making is one of passion, intellectual satisfaction and spiritual renewal.
In Los Angeles, besides working as music director of the LAOpera, you have also taught at the USC, UCLA and more. What advice could you give to young conductors and students, who wish to become as successful as you at an international level?
My advice to any and all students is to identify what road or discipline inspires them with passion, and to devote themselves to it fully. Their level of competence will stand in direct relationship to the hours they put into their study. The most important factor will be their love for the music. In our world, there are no career guarantees but you will live with what you love the most.