FEATURE: New Artist of the Month

Musical America

At a Cincinnati Opera outdoor park concert in early June, a lithe, self-assured conductor navigated the program of operatic chestnuts and orchestral favorites with an easy, natural flair. It was a performance that was at once supportive, unassuming, and richly musical.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that Christopher Allen is being noticed, from Los Angeles, where he has served as associate conductor of LA Opera for the past three seasons, to Cincinnati, where he has just been named to a new position, The John L. Magro Resident Conductor for Cincinnati Opera.

Suddenly, it seems, Allen is appearing on opera podiums on multiple continents.

Recently named a finalist as a “newcomer” in the 2015 International Opera Awards, the 29-year-old maestro will make his U.K. conducting debut in September with The Barber of Seville at the English National Opera. It’s a work he recently conducted in South Korea, at the Daegu Opera House.

In April, he made what the Los Angeles Times called “an auspicious debut with a difficult assignment” in Patrick Morganelli’s Hercules vs. Vampires (a project synching live music to a cult fantasy film) at the LA Opera. He will debut next season at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in L’elisir d’amore, directed by James Robinson.

His path to conducting was almost accidental.

“I joke that I got into conducting because I had no money to study piano,” he told me on a break in rehearsals for Morning Star, an opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and William Hoffman that he led in its world premiere June 30 at the Cincinnati Opera.

The native of Rockaway, Queens, developed an appreciation for music as a young boy, when his mother took him to Carnegie Hall to hear such pianists as Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini, and András Schiff. His feet didn’t yet touch the floor when he witnessed the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. But it was the Boston Symphony’s New York visit under Seiji Ozawa with Itzhak Perlman performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that made him decide that he must become a musician.

“It was mesmerizing, and I thought, 'I can’t imagine people making music at this level for a living.' I’ve been enchanted ever since,” he said.

Allen initially studied piano performance at the Manhattan School of Music. His many piano awards led to debuts in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Juilliard School. 

But he couldn’t afford to pursue a graduate degree in piano, and scholarships were not available. They were for conducting programs, however, and he applied to two of them. He decided to attend the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, where his sister was studying violin.

“To be quite honest, my audition was the first time I ever conducted an orchestra,” he admitted.

As he studied orchestral conducting, he was also working as an accompanist for the school’s acclaimed opera department.

“I’ve always had a love for opera. Once I started playing for rehearsals, I fell back in love with it,” said Allen, who estimates he has more than 30 operas in his fingers. “Because of my piano background, it was a very easy segue. You get to know the repertoire, how people breathe.”

In 2011, he began a three-year stint as a rehearsal pianist and assistant conductor for Cincinnati Opera’s Summer Festival. In Cincinnati he met LA Opera Music Director James Conlon, who also heads the Cincinnati May Festival, when he went backstage “as a star-struck kid” to meet Conlon after a concert.

When a position opened three years ago at the LA Opera, Allen auditioned and won. He quickly worked his way up the ranks to associate conductor, working closely with Conlon and Artistic Director Plácido Domingo. He considers Conlon an important mentor.

“I’ve learned how to work harder than anybody in this business. I’ve never met a man who worked more, and who was more committed to perfection. And that has rubbed off on me,” he said of Conlon. “The amount of time I spend on my scores has expanded greatly because of James. I’m forever grateful.”

Domingo, too, has inspired the young conductor. Much of his experience has been trial by fire—such as the time he jumped in to lead the final dress rehearsal of I due Foscari at Theater an der Wien, with Domingo in the role of Francesco Foscari.

“You learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “My time in LA has given me six hours a day of conducting. One day I’ll conduct the Britten War Requiem, the next day Falstaff, the next day, Carmen. You have to be ready to just do all of these things.”

He doesn’t believe that conducting is an art that can be taught.

“Being a pianist, all I focused on was being the best musician I could be,” he said. “To stand in front of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, one of the greatest American orchestras, all they care about is, are you a good musician, and can you do the job in that pit?”

Now a resident of the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and their two dogs, Allen still finds time for daily practicing of J.S. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.

His conducting aspirations are not exclusive to opera, although he would “love to be a music director of a great opera house” someday.

“I just want to make music at the highest level possible,” he said. “I love performing. There’s nothing better in the world than performing with amazing musicians.”

by Janelle Gelfand