By Thom Mariner
In 1978, I attended my first May Festival as a first-year graduate student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. A young conductor made his festival debut, and it was announced he would take over musical leadership of the festival going forward. His name was James Conlon.
Who would have imagined – likely including Maestro Conlon – he would remain for nearly 40 seasons? Following the 2016 festival, he will retire and become music director laureate.
During his first two decades leading the festival, I had the pleasure of singing under his direction numerous times, as a member of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati and as soloist. He programmed a huge range of music during those years: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Liszt, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, Szymanowski, Britten…. Not a choral conductor by training, Conlon nevertheless threw himself into this repertoire with relish. His enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity were infectious and his musical acumen prodigious.
In the decades since, he has taken the May Festival to new heights, bringing in Robert Porco to improve the quality of the chorus and using his international connections to attract the creme de la creme of soloists. I was thankful for the opportunity to sing last season, when VAE was hired to supplement the chorus for Berlioz’s gigantic Requiem. Conlon whipped the massive forces into a wild frenzy unlike anything I had been a part of. What a blast!
This year’s festival is a bit of a retrospective, leading off May 20 with Mozart’s most virtuosic choral work, his Great Mass in C, followed the next evening by a concert presentation of Verdi’s late masterpiece, “Otello,” with a cast of star soloists. For the festival’s annual foray to Covington’s Cathedral Basilica (May 22) – a Conlon innovation – he will lead commissioned works by rising star Julia Adolphe and Alvin Singleton, who composed “Praisemaker” for the festival’s 125th anniversary.
The following Friday (May 27) will feature the first piece Conlon conducted here – Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. This represents another Conlon contribution to the festival – bringing back works long dormant. Closing night (May 28) will feature Mendelssohn’s popular “Elijah,” one of the most beloved of all major choral works – a fitting conclusion to an era of inspired leadership.
And then everyone will stand to raise their voices one last time in Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, a tradition that will take on a special poignancy – final thanks and praise for a job very well done.