Onstage: Five Days in May

In its 133rd year, the May Festival celebrates Mozart, the 20th century and Cincinnati

The May Festival

The ornate confines of Music Hall host another May Festival the next two weekends.

The Cincinnati May Festival might be the oldest continuous choral festival in the Western Hemisphere, but Music Director James Conlon's passion and expertise have kept the Festival's program fresh and inventive for more than a quarter century. Heading into his 27th consecutive season as the Fest's Music Director, Conlon has assembled a typically impressive array of guest soloists — many of them making their May Festival debuts — to perform another stunning repertoire of musical selections both classical and contemporary across the next two weekends at Music Hall (Friday-Sunday and May 26-27).

Although Conlon has been conducting the May Festival for nearly three decades, he never tires of the planning or execution of the event. His enthusiasm as he speaks of his relationship with the May Festival, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and May Festival Chorus (MFC) is infectious.

"I love it so much, and I would have a hard time imagining my life without it," Conlon says from his New York home on the eve of rehearsals. "It's a great festival, it's unique in America. It's a festival which for two weeks every year devotes itself to great vocal repertor, sung by an enthusiastic and devoted amateur but very good choir that works all year long for these two weekends. Should it be unique? No, it should be everywhere. But it's not.

It's just in Cincinnati. And that's why I come back."

Even with 26 notches on his baton and another about to be added, Conlon is not the Festival's longest-running Music Director. That distinction belongs to Theodore Thomas, the man who founded the Festival in 1873.

"He was there for 33 years," says Conlon. "Now I think in those days they used to do it every two years, so I've probably done more festivals than he has, but I haven't been there as long. I've only got one more record to break, and I guess that's the one."

This year's program runs the gamut of musical expression, as Conlon has included pieces to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth as well as a newly-commissioned piece by renowned composer Adolphus Hailstork that will be making its world premiere at the May Festival.

Friday's opening night begins with Hailstork's commissioned premiere of Earthrise, a moving tribute to the vision of Earth rising over the lunar landscape during the 1969 Apollo mission. Joining the CSO and MFC for this performance will be Detroit's acclaimed Brazeal Dennard Chorale.

The opening night concert concludes with Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, an intense work that skillfully weaves ethereal melodicism with rhythmic power. This will mark the seventh performance of the piece since its successful May Festival debut in 1954. In addition to the CSO and MFC, the May Festival Youth Chorus and Cincinnati Children's Choir will be on hand, as well as soprano Norah Amsellem, baritone Lester Lynch and Three Mo' Tenors star Rodrick Dixon.

"Rod Dixon has been with us before, and he has a fabulous voice and extraordinary technique," says Conlon. "We're happy to have him back."

Saturday's program is made up of three 20th-century works inspired by literature, poetry, war and oppression. The first two pieces are both from composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; Serenade to Music is a lyrical poem that has as its basis the words from Act V of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and Toward the Unknown Region is Williams' musical homage to Walt Whitman. The evening's third work is Michael Tippett's masterpiece, A Child of Our Time, patterned after Handel's Messiah and composed in Europe during the strife and destruction of WWII.

Both Unknown Region and Child of Our Time are May Festival premieres. The evening's proceedings will be conducted by Director of Choruses Robert Porco and will feature performances from mezzo-soprano Ning Liang, soprano Cynthia Haymon and return appearances by Dixon and Lynch.

Predictably, Sunday's Mozart remembrance at Covington's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption sold out nearly three weeks ago. Those without tickets will be missing Conlon conducting members of the CSO, the MFC and soloists Liang, soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, tenor John Aler and, making his Festival debut, bass Morris Robinson, a former All-American football star with The Citadel whom Conlon describes as "magnificent."

The performances will include Mozart's Vesperae de Dominica and Vesperae Solennes de Confessor, which will be prefaced by the May Festival Youth Chorus' interpretations of Mozart's Venite populi, Ave verum corpus and Sancta Maria Mater Dei under the direction of James Bagwell.

The May 26 performance continues the Mozart celebration with a not-to-be-missed operatic concert presentation of The Abduction from the Seraglio, a romantic comedy about love and forgiveness. The opera includes a number of firsts. It's the work's Festival premiere and all of the featured singers are debuting, including Morris Robinson, sopranos Mary Dunleavy (in the role of Konstanze) and Amanda Pabyan and tenors Matthew Garrett and Matthias Klink, who is also making his American debut.

"With the May Festival it's maybe been a matter of repertoire; they do vocal music but not a lot of opera," Dunleavy says of her Festival debut. "This is a great opportunity to do a role that I have sung many, many times and do it in a semi-staged, concert version. It's my (Festival) debut, and it's my first real time working with Maestro Conlon, but the role is very familiar so that's pretty comforting, I have to say. Too many new things at one time, you could get overwhelmed."

The Abduction of the Seraglio will also feature renowned actor Michael York, who will perform double duty as the opera's narrator and as a part of the cast in the crucial non-singing role of the Pasha Selim.

"I can change hats, and I may literally change hats, just to distinguish myself from the narrator and the Pasha," says York. "It's such a wonderful opera. In fact, it's the first Mozart opera I ever saw, when I was 14 or 15, and it's stayed with me. What's great is that it's about the Muslim world and we seem to be particularly obsessed with Muslim affairs at the moment. Within the opera, you have the Pasha Selim, who's an intellect, refined, magnanimous and almost heroic, and on the other side you have Osmond, who works for him, is just the opposite and a typical rogue. And at the end of the opera, there's Mozart's great thing that we're all capable of compassion and regeneration."

The May Festival closes May 28 with a performance of The Creation, the stirring Hayden oratorio, which will be performed in its entirety for the seventh time in May Festival history. Soloists for what promises to be the truly electrifying concert of the series are Janice Chandler-Eteme, John Aler and baritone Donnie Ray Albert.

For those who might feel some intimidation because of the austerity of Music Hall or snooty preconceptions about Classical music or the perceived stuffiness of the program, Conlon has some welcoming comments.

"We like to see people who have never been there," says the maestro with a laugh. "No one should be intimidated by Music Hall. It looks very intimidating from the outside, but it's actually very warm and fuzzy on the inside. And don't be scared off if you've never heard a Classical concert. Classical music is for everybody. It's not just for the elite or those who've studied it or those who look snobby. It's for everybody. I started listening as a kid and I love it every day more and more. And that possibility is out there for everybody."

Cincinnati May Festival opens Friday and continues Saturday, Sunday and May 26-27.

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