2019 Cincinnati May Festival Looks to the ‘Great Beyond’

The 2019 May Festival takes place May 17-25 with four performances at Music Hall that explore this year's theme: The Great Beyond

May 6, 2019 at 3:19 pm
Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena - Photo: Michael Novak
Photo: Michael Novak
Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena

Proclaimed as “a celebration of the human voice,” the 2019 Cincinnati May Festival takes place this month with four performances at Music Hall exploring the Great Beyond: The Immortal (May 17), Silences Between (May 18), Mahler & Mussorgsky: Games of Thrones (May 24) and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (May 25). Complementary programming throughout the city is intended to engage and entertain as well.

The annual May Festival features about 130 vocalists performing in concert with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Regarded as Cincinnati’s preeminent cultural institution, it’s the longest-running choral festival in the Western Hemisphere.

Though its history is uniquely Cincinnati, the fest also collaborates with artists from around the world.

Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena says the May Fest will work with artistic collaborators from outside the region. These include Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan and the Grammy-winning eight-member avant-garde choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth. “Cincinnati’s cultural scene is grounded in tradition,” Mena says, “but not afraid to support new works by contemporary artists.”

To that point, it’s good to note this probably isn’t your grandparents’ choral fest.

Mena describes the May Fest’s North American premiere of Mark Simpson’s oratorio The Immortal as incorporating “surround-sound electronics” alongside the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the May Festival Chorus, baritone Rod Gilfry and Roomful of Teeth.

It’s appropriate for the festival to open the door for collaborators from around the globe. As a matter of fact, its roots go back to the homeland of many early immigrants. In the 1800s, these families brought a love of choral festivals to the Americas, which were wildly popular in Europe. Here in Cincinnati, they’d gather for Saengerfests, performing grand works in choral unison.

Think about it: the May Festival was founded in 1873, the Cincinnati Art Museum came along in 1886, the  Art Academy of Cincinnati opened its own building in Eden Park in 1887 and our own Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was born in 1895. The Queen City was quite the cultural hub, with all eyes on our Ohio River banks to see what would come next.

The very first May Festival concert was a smash, and it wasn’t hard to generate excitement for a follow-up in 1875. Unfortunately for performers — and the estimated 4,000 in attendance (with another 2,000 estimated in the streets outside) — a passing thunderstorm pelting the leaky tin roof of Saengerfest Hall put a damper on things. That, in its own way, was a big reason for the construction of today’s Music Hall; its Springer Auditorium was ready in time for the third May Festival Chorus in 1878 — where the May Festival still takes place in the present day. 

“Of course, the May Festival doesn’t just take place inside Music Hall,” Mena says. “Last year I invited an Otxote — a group of eight male singers from my homeland, the Basque Country of Spain — to perform not only before my concerts at Music Hall, but also in Fountain Square, in local restaurants, in schools and retirement homes,” he says. “It is crucial that we take the May Festival into our communities.”

Because of the legacy and continued success of the May Festival, its organizers take great pride in attracting new listeners.

One of last year’s highlights was an invitation to community members to rehearse movements of Handel’s Messiah under the May Festival Chorus’ Director Robert Porco. It was a hit — nearly 200 individuals sang in the final concert as members of the community chorus.

“There was no audition process,” Mena says. “It was important to me that everyone was welcome, and I was mindful that an audition would have been a barrier.” 

This year, the concept goes even further. An entire concert — Sounds of the City on May 19 — will be dedicated to giving community choruses the chance to perform at Music Hall. The concert will be free to attend.

“Engaging our entire audience — and by that I mean existing audience members and those waiting to be welcomed — is of great importance to me, and it is even more of a challenge when there are only four concerts to program,” Mena says. “I am searching to continuously enhance and rejuvenate the festival with interesting and attractive programs and projects, but at the same time to really engage with our society — with people in our community who enjoy singing in an amateur capacity.

“I’d like to convince them that the May Festival is their home, too.”

The May Festival takes place May 17 to May 25 at various venues across Cincinnati. More info/tickets: mayfestival.com.