May Festival reconfigures artistic leadership following Conlon exit

By Tom Consolo

Gerard McBurney, inaugural creative partner.

Gerard McBurney, inaugural creative partner.

In a year of big changes for Greater Cincinnati arts groups, add May Festival to the list of organizations singing a different tune.

The festival’s board of directors has announced plans for the 2017 event and unveiled a three-headed structure of artistic leadership.

This season, the May Festival – the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continuously active choral festival – marked the end of James Conlon’s 37-year tenure as music director. Fittingly, the closing performance of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” also was the last concert at Music Hall before that landmark’s 17-month, $130-million renovation.

In the interim, the festival – like the symphony – takes up temporary residence in the Taft Theatre downtown.

On the podium

By the time the festival returns to Music Hall, all three pieces of the artistic team likely will be in place. That team will not include a music director, the post held by Conlon. Artistic leadership instead will be split between a principal conductor and what is being called a creative partner.

The principal conductor will conduct most festival performances and handle programming. A search committee is at work to choose that person, but its work won’t be done in time for the 2017 festival. Instead, four guest conductors will be on the podium for the four Taft Theatre performances.

The four are not inherently finalists for the post, but Meghan Berneking, the CSO’s director of communications, said that, in a time of transition like this, anyone who is given the opportunity to work with the orchestra and chorus will be under consideration. The four guest conductors are:

  • Markus Stenz, chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
  • Matthew Halls, artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival
  • Michael Francis, music director of the Florida Orchestra and the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, as well as chief conductor of Sweden’s Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
  • Harry Bicket, considered a leading expert on baroque and classical music; artistic director of the English Concert and chief conductor of Santa Fe Opera

Innovations and familiar faces

In addition to the principal conductor, the May Festival is creating the position of creative partner. It’s designed to be a rotating post “responsible for infusing the festival with artistic innovation and imagination.” The role could be filled by “composers, vocalists, vocal ensembles – really any number of collaborations,” said Kelly Downing, former May Festival board chair and now leading the artistic leadership search committee.

The inaugural creative partner is Gerard McBurney, a British composer and writer best known as creative director of the Chicago Symphony’s “Beyond the Score” series. Those shows have been presented by several other major orchestras and can be streamed online. For the 2017 festival, he will curate immersive concert experiences, coined the Dream Project, surrounding the Mendelssohn and Elgar programs.

The third leg of the artistic triad is a familiar name. Robert Porco will continue his role as director of choruses, a post he has held since 1989.

Also new for 2017 is the festival’s first artist-in-residence. Bass-baritone Eric Owens will appear as soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and he will be involved in several community activities connected with the festival. Owens served in the same capacity with the New York Philharmonic for its 2015-16 season.

2017 Cincinnati May Festival

  • May 19: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9. Markus Stenz, conductor; Eric Owens, bass-baritone.
  • May 20: Mendelssohn, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Matthew Halls, conductor.
  • May 21: Annual concert at Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption, Covington. Repertoire and performers TBA.
  • May 26: Elgar, “The Dream of Gerontius.” Michael Francis, conductor.
  • May 27: Bach, “Mass in B Minor.” Harry Bicket conductor.

Additional repertoire and soloists TBA. All performances except May 21 will be at the Taft Theatre.

“Dream Project,” curated by Gerard McBurney, includes the May 20 and May 26 programs.

For more information visit:

Leave a Reply