Conductor James Conlon made his Ravinia Festival debut in 1977, and he’s been back many times since. Recently he was appointed its music director, effective in 2005; he’ll replace Christoph Eschenbach, who, in the latest round of musical chairs among orchestra leaders, is moving to the Philadelphia Orchestra. The choice didn’t get a rise out of anyone–Conlon’s well liked by his colleagues, he’s American, and at 53 he’s relatively young. And he’s no stranger to Chicago audiences, having conducted the CSO downtown as well as productions at Lyric Opera. The only drawback is that, unlike Eschenbach and his predecessor James Levine, Conlon is not a chamber musician–which means he won’t be taking part in the jamborees with the music director that have helped make Ravinia more than Symphony Center North. Conlon’s forte is opera: he’s been the principal conductor of the Paris Opera since ’96, and he headed the opera house in Cologne as well. On this side of the Atlantic, he’s made over 200 appearances at the Met. He’s been praised for the theatrical flourish and dramatic sweep he puts into his interpretations and for coaxing singers to follow suit. He hasn’t been nearly as successful with the symphonic literature, although his tenure with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the 80s provided first-rate training. Conlon has followed the career trajectory of many a promising American musician: he went to Europe to gain the experience and reputation that would eventually get him hired by a major American orchestra. With the Ravinia appointment, he’s now certainly on the shortlist of candidates to take over from Daniel Barenboim as the CSO’s artistic chief when that time comes. This weekend Conlon will preside over the CSO in a pair of standard concerts featuring three top-notch soloists. Friday night is all Beethoven: the superbly musical French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays the First Piano Concerto on a program with the G major and F major romances, which feature coconcertmaster Robert Chen on violin, and the Seventh Symphony. On Saturday, Yefim Bronfman will take his turn at Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, in between the CSO’s performances of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Dvorak’s Symphony no. 7. Friday and Saturday, July 18 and 19, 8 PM, Pavilion, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fort Worth Star-Telegram.