Cincinnati May Festival Opens this Weekend with Big Changes in Leadership and Programming

With Juanjo Mena stepping in as the principal conductor, plus new attempts at community engagement, this is not your great-great-grandparents' choral festival

May 15, 2018 at 3:00 pm
click to enlarge Spain's Juanjo Mena becomes the May Festival's principal conductor this year. - PHOTO: Michael Novak
PHOTO: Michael Novak
Spain's Juanjo Mena becomes the May Festival's principal conductor this year.

Juanjo Mena has conducted the May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in four of the May Festival’s last five seasons, but this year he officially becomes the annual event’s principal conductor, for the next three years.

The Spanish-born Mena will conduct two of the festival’s five concerts, on May 25 and 26; the 2018 May Festival runs this weekend through May 26.

The festivities open on Friday night at Music Hall with Eun Sun Kim — the first female conductor ever for the event — leading the chorus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra through Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. And on Saturday night, Robert Porco will conduct and direct three choruses through a full-scale production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which also will feature dancers, a Rock band and the Walnut Hills High School marching band.

Mena’s big event is the following week on May 25. That concert features a culmination of his first encounter with the May Festival Chorus — it’s a complete performance of Maurice Ravel’s ballet score Daphnis et Chloé, in which the chorus is a vital part of the soundscape. The ballet is rarely performed, although its two orchestral suites are frequently programmed. Mena conducted those suites with the CSO and May Festival chorus during the 2012 festival. In doing so, he forged a strong connection.

“The chorus amazed me from the first minute with their professional attitude in a work as complex as this one,” he explains via email. “Their musicality and their capacity to react to whatever I asked of them strengthened our musical relationship.”

Ravel described his 1912 Daphnis et Chloé as a “Symphonie chorégraphique” (choreographic symphony) that tells the story of the shepherd Daphnis’ love for Chloé in one act and three scenes. The score is acclaimed as Ravel’s finest orchestral work, but it is a major challenge for choral singers.

“The chorus’ participation is fundamental in conveying emotion and creating a sound picture,” Mena says. “They’re effectively another instrument of the orchestra. The a cappella sections have incredible harmonic complexity. It’s technically demanding and difficult to do well.”

The chorus sings no words, an innovation Ravel used brilliantly.

“Just the vowels are used, and with these wordless phrases the chorus creates atmosphere, colors and sensations,” Mena says.

Although Ravel at first insisted that a chorus must be part of any performance, he later relented when he realized that few were up to the challenge. But the May Festival Chorus can handle it, Mena says.

Music Hall’s improved acoustics will enhance this work. The sound will be more evenly distributed but, even more importantly, the dynamic contrasts will be appreciated, “from the delicate and suggestive pianissimos to the exuberant and overwhelming fortissimos,” according to Mena.

“It’s a masterpiece,” he says. “Allow yourself to be carried away by this Impressionist music of enormous beauty, which is full of sensuality, enormous energy, emotions and life.”

Daphnis et Chloé is the final work heard on the May 25 program, which also includes Magnificat by Giovanni Gabrieli, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (with vocal soloist David Daniels), and the North American premiere of James MacMillan’s Credo, which Mena premiered in England in 2012. Daniels, who attended University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, has been a leader in the revival of male “countertenor” singers.

Mena also is celebrating his debut weekend as principal conductor with a vocal ensemble from his native Basque region of Spain, Otxote Txanbela, which will perform throughout the city and before concerts.

On the evening of May 26, the May Festival concludes with Mena conducting a performance of Handel’s Messiah, which features a community chorus.

Mena’s appointment marks the beginning of a new leadership model for the nation’s oldest choral festival, with roots going back to Saengerfests of the 1840s. The May Festival has also decided to appoint an annual “Creative Partner” to develop programs with an outreach component. For this year, Rollo Dilworth will be curating a free Sing Hallelujah concert at 6 p.m. this Sunday. It’s your chance to be a featured singer.

The May Festival occurs this weekend (May 18-20) and May 25-26 at Music Hall. Tickets/more info: