James Conlon and the CSO / by Doyle Armbrust

Musician lore ranges from the inspiring (an orphaned, 12-year-old Ibrahim Ferrer busking in the streets of San Luis, Cuba) to the outrageous (Iowa’s bat population decreasing by one with the arrival of Ozzy Osbourne in 1982). Audiences aren’t satisfied with just the music—they want a story.

Yet Ravinia Festival music director James Conlon isn’t willing to entertain any such editorializing when it comes to Gustav Mahler, especially as it pertains to the composer’s final (finished) symphony, the Ninth. “We have all tended to see the Ninth as a farewell to life, especially the last movement. Of course, that’s like back-dating a check,” the 59-year-old conductor says, adding, “It’s not a biography.”

Many historians and performers have long assumed that the deterioration of the Austrian composer’s health as well as his preoccupation with the supposed curse of penning a ninth symphony (think Beethoven and Bruckner) compelled Mahler to soberly say his goodbyes in the quiet anticlimax of the symphony’s closing measures.

Conlon agrees that the pathos and philosophical ruminations surrounding death are very much present in the score, but the Queens, New York, native hears those same questions being asked, musically speaking, as early as the composer’s “zero” symphony, “Das klagende Lied,” as well as throughout his catalog. “The language has evolved, but the same type of metaphysical questions, deep emotions, extravagant emotions—they’re all there.”

Having led roughly 290 performances of Mahler’s works in a remarkable career that currently includes the directorships of L.A. Opera and the Cincinnati May Festival, Conlon is in a position to separate the musical truth from mythologizing narrative. Sunday’s performance ranks as a can’t-miss of the Ravinia Festival, in no need of flying-mammal decapitation for drama.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on July 13th, 2009