Fall Arts Preview: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's New Season Full of Exciting Collaborations and a Performance by Common

The 2022-23 season highlights innovation, inclusion and positivity.

click to enlarge Oscar-winning hip-hop artist Common and soloist Kelley O’Connor will appear with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra during the 2022-2023 season. - Photos: Brian BowenSmith (left) and Ben Dashwood
Photos: Brian BowenSmith (left) and Ben Dashwood
Oscar-winning hip-hop artist Common and soloist Kelley O’Connor will appear with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra during the 2022-2023 season.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's 2022-23 season is one of positivity and light in the wake of the global events that have occurred in the past two years. Highlights of the fall lineup demonstrate why the CSO has become a touchstone for innovative and inclusive programming: an epic symphony, world premieres of film and film scores, and a renowned hip-hop master making his debut as a Pops headliner.

The season opener on Sept. 24 and 25 is a statement in itself: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection. Maestro Louis Langrée leads the CSO, the May Festival Chorus and soloists Joélle Harvey and Kelley O’Connor in this monumental work that concludes with a rousing affirmation of transcendence. It’s the perfect work to open the CSO’s first full season in Music Hall since the pandemic abruptly ended the 2020 season in March of that year.

“Those were times of uncertainty, fear and tragedy,” Langrée tells CityBeat. “So, we had to open our return to a normal season with a work that is more than the music, that celebrates a new beginning. Mahler’s second symphony struck me as the most necessary and the most appropriate.”

Human voices are an essential element.

“The intertwining of the May Festival Chorus’s sonorities is so crucial to creating these intimate and powerful moments in the final movement,” Langrée says.

Mahler experienced profound losses in the years leading up to the symphony’s premiere in 1895. He was inspired by a hymn, with text by German poet Friedrich Klopstock, that extolled the soul’s resurrection. If the concluding choral wash of sound isn’t as well-known as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, it packs a more emotional wallop.

The vocal soloists have performed frequently with the CSO. Mezzo O’Connor was here in 2019, performing in Mozart’s Requiem. For soprano Harvey, Mahler brings her full circle: She was scheduled to perform a Handel concert with the CSO in March 2020 when Langrée says the CSO’s director of personnel interrupted rehearsal to announce the symphony was shutting down. “None of us will ever forget that,” Langrée says.

The symphony is an epic journey from despair to catharsis, especially for Langrée.

“As I study the score, each page becomes my favorite, but that final choral passage is the ultimate, going from minor to major, from darkness to light,” he says.

Three weeks later, the city truly lights up when the BLINK takes over Oct. 13-16. The CSO is teaming up with the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial — which also is taking place in October — to join BLINK’s city-wide festival with Sun Dogs, a CSO Proof presentation of three world-premiere films and accompanying film scores performed by the CSO. CSO Proof began four years ago as a new format to experience orchestral music with cutting-edge artistic collaborations in an informal setting and for a lower-priced admission.

“We’ve wanted to collaborate with FotoFocus, and after four years, it’s finally happening,” Nate Bachhuber, CSO vice president of artistic planning, tells CityBeat. He says that linking film and music is more than an obvious connection.

“We’ve all experienced a film whose music moved us as much as the cinematic elements,” he says. “I know that a film sequence can inspire a composer and it goes the other way, too. We wanted to explore the process and see and hear the results.”

Bachhuber recruited Kate Nordstrum, artistic director of Liquid Music — widely acclaimed for its productions of new classical music — and electroacoustic composer and orchestrator Daniel Wohl as co-curators. FotoFocus organizers helped to identify an international roster of emerging film artists. Wohl and Grammy-winning Pakistani composer and vocalist Arooj Aftab are working with American filmmaker Josephine Decker. French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and French director Manon Lutanie previously have collaborated and will join forces to work with British composer Dev Hynes, better known as Blood Orange. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is working with American Rafiq Bhatia, the guitarist, composer and producer for the band Son Lux.

Sun Dogs is part of FotoFocus’s performing arts series, with five opportunities Oct. 14-16 to experience world premieres performed in Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium by the CSO, led by composer and CSO creative partner Matthias Pintscher. All the participating artists will attend. And, as Bachhuber proudly notes, tickets are $5.

On Oct. 25, a hip-hop legend is the Cincinnati Pops headliner. Oscar-, Emmy- and Grammy Award-winning artist Common makes a rare solo appearance with Pops principal guest conductor Damon Gupton. The rapper, producer, composer, poet, author, actor and activist made his CSO debut as a symphonic artist during the 2016 Classical Roots concert, performing his Oscar-winning song “Glory” from the film Selma with soloist Capathia Jenkins and the Classical Roots choir.

“We had to rebuild the auditorium after that concert,” Cincinnati Pops maestro John Morris Russell says with a laugh.

Common equally was affected by the experience, Russell says.

“You hear an orchestra on the soundtrack, but this was Common’s first time hearing it with a live orchestra and chorus. He was blown away,” he says.

Russell adds that Common didn’t sequester himself in the green room when he wasn’t onstage.

“You could see him in the wings, taking in the whole thing,” he says. “When we concluded with the ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ he was literally jumping up and down. And he greeted everyone coming offstage, orchestra, chorus, all of us.”

His previous Cincinnati stop also launched a series of appearances with top orchestras including the Houston, Chicago, San Diego, Pittsburgh and National Symphony Orchestras. Many of those performances were led by conductor Gupton.

Common’s music has never been confined to one style or genre as any fan can testify. But as he’s said in numerous interviews, his heart is rooted in hip hop. His most recent releases (A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2) feature artists including PJ, Black Thought and Lenny Kravitz.

Common has deep ties to Cincinnati, having spent summers here with his aunt’s family in Bond Hill, where he wrote his first rap verses paying tribute to “the Bond Hill Crew.” Now a hip-hop elder, Common remains an impressive artist, juggling multi-media gigs, and advocating for underprivileged youth through his Common Ground Foundation.

According to his website, the Pops gig is Common’s only scheduled appearance for the rest of 2022.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra opens its 2022-23 season with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony on Sept. 24-25. Info: cincinnatisymphony.org.

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