Outgoing music director James Conlon and Ravinia are not rushing into any parting of the ways.
The 64-year-old American conductor has offered to extend his present contract with the festival for another year, which will keep him in his post through the 2015 summer season, for a total of 11 years as its fourth music director, Ravinia was scheduled to announce Tuesday.
Conlon's contract with North America's oldest music festival was to have expired at the end of the current season. He began his tenure in 2005.
“Everything has its time, and after 11 years I feel it is the moment to pass on this responsibility,” Conlon said in a statement. “This has been a difficult decision. The work at Ravinia is very meaningful to me, and the Chicago Symphony is a supreme orchestra.”
Increased commitments abroad and at home, where Conlon has served as music director of the Los Angeles Opera since 2006 and music director of the Cincinnati May Festival since 1979, have caused him to weigh his personal and professional priorities, he added.
“I have worked year-round, including every summer, since 1974. There are things I wish to accomplish, both musical and personal, and I need dedicated time to realize these projects.”
There is a retrospective tone to the Conlon programs Ravinia has announced for 2015, when he will lead the CSO in repertory closely associated with him during an association that began 37 years ago, when he was just beginning his podium career.
His six concerts here next summer will include symphonies by Mahler and Shostakovich and concerto collaborations with violinist Maxim Vengerov and pianists Garrick Ohlsson, Lise de la Salle and Jorge Federico Osorio.
Two programs, including a reprise from 2007 of Alexander von Zemlinsky's lush tone poem “Die Seejungfrau” (“The Mermaid”), will hark back to the most valuable Conlon project of his Ravinia tenure — his “Breaking the Silence” survey of music suppressed by the Nazis and forgotten after the fall of the Third Reich.
He will conclude his Ravinia tenure in August 2015 with a concert performance of Wagner's opera “The Flying Dutchman,” which has never been performed at the festival. Casting is to be announced.
Conlon was in many ways a logical choice to succeed Christoph Eschenbach at Ravinia, having served as a regular guest conductor at the CSO's summer home since 1977.
The New York-born, Juilliard-trained conductor was only 27 at the time, fresh from debuts with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. Ravinia Music Director James Levine and CEO Edward Gordon recognized Conlon's potential and gave him many opportunities, summer after summer, to develop as a musician and orchestra leader.
It was at Ravinia that Conlon, like Levine before him, cut his teeth on the symphonic repertory before establishing his reputation, mainly in opera, at home and in Europe. Annual appearances with the CSO at the orchestra's summer retreat between 1977 and 1990 helped establish a close working relationship with the orchestra.
The timing of Conlon's departure is consistent with a career built in carefully considered stages.
A thoughtful, deeply serious musician whom no one would mistake for a careerist, Conlon nevertheless realized early on that an American conductor needs European credentials if he or she is to be taken seriously back home.
He spent the better part of two decades, from 1983 to 2003, amassing repertory and leadership experience on the Continent: as principal conductor of the Paris National Opera, general music director of the city of Cologne in Germany and music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in Holland.
Along with those posts, Conlon found time to conduct every major orchestra in the U.S. and Europe. He has led nearly 300 performances at the Met since his debut there in 1976.
“A lifetime isn't enough for all the orchestral music and opera I want to do,” Conlon told the Tribune in 1988. “I hope I'm granted a long life, because I believe there is a great deal I have yet to contribute. They say the peak of a conductor's productivity is between the ages of 50 and 70. So, you see, I really have a great deal to look forward to.”
Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman said the board will proceed with all due care before naming a successor.
“The only decision we've made at this point is not to rush into a decision,” he said in a statement. “We know from our audiences that they enjoy seeing a variety of guest conductors leading the CSO, so we will take our time.”
That may be just as well, since there is no clear front-runner for the post at the moment. One possibility might be Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, a popular CSO guest maestro downtown, who made a strong Ravinia debut in 2012.