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Surrounded in Song: The Cincinnati May Festival


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The gathering of 145 professionally trained singers in one city is, in itself, a massive undertaking. The 40,000 collective hours of rehearsal and performance time is incredible, and the fact that this celebration has occurred every year since 1873 is absolutely astonishing. Meet the May Festival, and prepare to be blown away.

The May Festival’s tagline is “surround yourself in song,” a sensation you’re sure to experience if you attend any of the five programs at the end of May. Perhaps also though, the theme can be taken to heart to overcome some of the bittersweet aspects of the 2016 Festival—for one, surround yourself in song to celebrate the conclusion of James Conlon’s 37-year tenure as May Festival Music Director. If ever there was one name synonymous with Cincinnati and choral arts, there is no question that person would be Conlon, whose commitment to the city and the May Festival can be summed up in a word: extraordinary.

Conlon was appointed to the position of Music Director in 1979. “I was engaged for a three-year period. I imagined that I would stay a few years, get a certain number of big choral works under my belt, and then move on,” he said. Luckily, fate had other plans. As he delved deeper into the repertoire, his relationship with the Chorus, Orchestra and city grew in significance. “After a few years, the purely professional satisfaction that it afforded me gave way to a greater dimension. The May Festival simply became part of my life—friendships, professional collaboration, and a ‘family-like feeling’ gradually took over to the point that it seemed natural to continue.”

Now in his final year as Music Director of the May Festival, Conlon reflects on the Queen City: “The Festival and the city that has nurtured and supported it have a special place in my life and my heart. I look back with gratitude for the almost four decades of association, and look forward to returning to both the Festival as Conductor Laureate and to the Symphony in the future.”

For those inclined to embrace the sentimental, the May Festival might also be the best time to surround yourselves in the song of Music Hall before it temporarily closes for renovation. Rounding out the final performances of 2016 in Music Hall with the May Festival is an appropriate ode to the Hall’s beginnings; on May 14, 1878, Cincinnati celebrated the grand opening of the Reubin R. Springer Music Hall with the May Festival. The auditorium, originally constructed for choral music performances, was one long, flat room, crowned by the Hook & Hastings organ above the stage and the May Festival Chorus on risers. This year, the closing night of the Festival is May 28, a night which promises to be an emotional event for many Music Hall devotees. That is, of course, until the renovated doors open for the highly anticipated 2017–18 season, which follows a spectacular season spent in the historic Taft Theatre.

Throughout the Festival, audiences will have the opportunity to surround themselves in many songs, from standards of the choral repertoire to world premieres. The Festival will open May 20 with an all-Mozart program, including the “Great” Mass in C minor, whose mighty choruses and ornate solos certainly played a part in earning the work its place among the canon of choral masterpieces.

On May 22, the May Festival Chorus will perform two world premiere pieces in the beautiful Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky. Composer Julia Adolphe, 2016 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist and a former intern of Conlon’s, will premiere Sea Dream Elegies, composed of four movements that evoke imagery of sunrise, sunset, sea and wind. Renowned composer and life-long friend of Conlon’s Alvin Singleton, whose compositions are already included in the May Festival Chorus repertoire, has written Prayer. The work, commissioned by the Cincinnati May Festival, includes themes from three spirituals: “My Lord, What a Mornin’,” “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” and “Where Shall I Be When the Firs’ Trumpet Soun’.” Other not-to-miss performances include Verdi’s Otello, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

Tickets are available at mayfestival.com.

—Laura Bock