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James Conlon reflects on his life at Ravinia


“Mozart in the Winds”: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Martin Theatre. Tickets, $40, $60; lawn, $10

Verdi’s ‘Aida’ in concert: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, pavilion. Tickets, $25, $100; lawn, $10

‘Tchaikovsky Spectacular,’ with violinist Gil Shaham and soprano Oksana Dyka: 5 p.m. Aug. 4, pavilion. Tickets, $25, $80; lawn, $10

‘The Burning Fiery Furnace’: 2, 8 p.m. Aug. 17 at Trinity Episcopal Church, 425 Laurel Ave., Highland Park. Tickets, $40

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Updated: August 30, 2013 6:09AM

The Ravinia Festival has been has been integral to James Conlon for nearly his entire career. In 1977, just three years after his debut with the New York Philharmonic, the conductor began the first of 17 consecutive years of guest performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia, the CSO’s summer home. A year after stepping down as principal conductor of the Paris National Opera in 2004, he was named Ravinia’s music director, in which his main duties are leading the CSO.

Now 63, Conlon ranks among this country’s most respected conductors, having appeared with nearly every major symphony orchestra in Europe and North America. In 2011, he began a three-year series of international concerts marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. During a recent afternoon at Ravinia, Conlon spoke about his work at the festival and some of his chief musical interests:

Q. Have you detected any changes to the Chicago Symphony under Riccardo Muti’s musical direction?

A. I’m a major, major fan of Maestro Muti. I’ve always been, and we have very excellent relationship with each other. This is an orchestra that can do anything, so if you ask for A, you get A. If you ask for B, you get B. Because he is asking for a certain kind of warmth and elegance in the sound, it’s even more present than before. I think it’s great.

Q. Do you program differently for the orchestra outdoors at Ravinia than you would if you were indoors at Symphony Center?

A. The answer is a definite yes. You have to bear in mind that it is outdoors. That’s a big thing. We discussed what we were going to do for the Britten-Wagner-Verdi anniversary. For a long time, we discussed Britten and the War Requiem. The War Requiem is an outstanding piece of the last two centuries. I find it very difficult to imagine doing it outdoors. I say this hearing it was just done at Millennium Park [at the Grant Park Music Festival], and maybe successfully, I don’t know. But I can’t hear myself doing that piece outdoors. There’s a lot of very subtle Debussy that does not work out here. Bach doesn’t as well. Another thing to remember is that in the summer, you can challenge your audience but you can’t challenge it to the degree that you can during the main season. That being said, I push at the edges, anyway. It’s my nature to do that. But it’s not the time of the year to give them hard-core, avant-garde music. People have a different mindset in the summer. It’s a little harder for people to concentrate on something new and challenging in the middle of the summer in the heat, where they are very relaxed.

Q. Is there any difference when it comes to conducting outdoors or indoors?

A. Essentially, no. I don’t conduct differently anywhere — large hall, small hall, big orchestra, small orchestra. The essential relationship is the artist with the music and, then, the interaction and chemistry between the orchestra and the conductor. That doesn’t change.

Q.You are leading a three-year Britten cycle. What compelled you to undertake such a project?

A. I got struck by the Britten lightning when I was an adolescent — the [then-] new production of “Peter Grimes” at the [Metropolitan Opera]. It all started then. I saw Britten and [tenor Peter] Pears give two lieder recitals, I think in ’67 in New York at Hunter College. An astounding experience. First of all seeing Pears, which was very different from hearing his voice in isolation on a recording — his charismatic presence, his total artistry and his ability to hold the audience rapt. But even more so, Benjamin Britten’s pianism was something never to be forgotten. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. The fluidity of sound, the extraordinary colors and the ease — he was amazing. Those made big impressions on me. As soon as I got a chance to start conducting Britten works, I did. So, it’s been a lifelong thing.

Q. Is Britten finally getting his full due as a composer?

A. Obviously, this year is going to make a big difference, but I don’t think anything is enough. The reason is that Britten and his music are in their way reticent. It’s music that doesn’t scream at you. It’s music that you have to listen to. Its intensity is not necessarily evident immediately.

Q. You have long championed the music of composers suppressed by the Nazis. Do you those efforts are having an effect on the broader classical world?

A. The good news and the short answer is yes. Is it enough? No. It takes a long time. It takes a lot of effort. There is no question that it is making enormous headway, especially with [Alexander] Zemlinsky but also [Franz] Schreker and other composers like [Walter] Braunfels. I will not live long enough to see the results I would like to see, but I believe they will come, and they are coming. It takes a long time to get over preconceptions that what you don’t know can’t be good.

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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