Eckart Preu, Dylan Shelton, Juanjo Mena: New faces in the Cincinnati music and theater scene

– By Ray Cooklis

Eckart Preu, music director, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra

Eckart Preu

Eckart Preu

When Eckart Preu takes over the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra podium for its Summermusik 2017 festival season, the ensemble’s unofficial theme song may well become Cole Porter’s classic pop tune, “Anything Goes.”

The German-born Preu, 47, who has directed orchestras in Spokane, Long Beach and other U.S. cities, is known for his innovative programming, promotion of American music and flair for the unexpected.

“I want musical performance to be really fun, always something unpredictable,” Preu said. “I want to always come out with high spirits and excitement.”

So what attracted him to apply for the CCO? “When I saw posting for this position, I checked out the orchestra,” he said. “I heard some recordings and found them to be of really high quality.”

It seemed a good fit for Preu (rhymes with joy). The orchestra’s summer schedule worked well with his other commitments, and the smaller ensemble would complement his symphonic work.

The CCO decided it was a good fit, too, and announced Preu’s appointment in late October.

He’s excited about the possibilities.

“The chamber orchestra is interesting in that … it has its own unique repertoire,” Preu said. “The advantage is, if you do it right, it provides an experience a big orchestra can’t.

“And it can give a new perspective on standard repertoire as well. When you play Beethoven in a smaller, more intimate setting, it starts to play out quite differently.”

A chamber orchestra, Preu said, is more like a race car  than the sturdier but less nimble symphony orchestra. For the listener, “it’s much more of a one-on-one experience as opposed to sitting in a big hall listening to Mahler, which, of course, is fine, too.”

How will he approach his new position?

“For me, it’s about finding and defining an identity for the orchestra,” he said. In the CCO, he sees “a willingness, an openness, maybe also a need to redefine itself and break barriers, to find new ways to present concerts and attract people.”

What shape might that take?

“You can do a lot of interesting juxtapositions, programming-wise,” Preu said. “You can mix classical and contemporary music. You can do interesting and unexpected collaborations, and not necessarily the obvious ones.

“With a small orchestra, you can play anywhere in town. With 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 musicians, you can select venues and partners.

“It might be daunting, but the world is open,” Preu said. “Really, anything goes at this point.”

Dylan Shelton, artistic director, Madcap Puppets

Dylan Shelton

Dylan Shelton

Dylan Shelton is a hands-on leader. Literally.

He has his hands on hammers, paint brushes, construction material and fabrics as he helps build sets and costumes for Madcap Puppets, the 35-year-old theatrical troupe he took over in March.

Fortunately, he says, his hands are clean enough to pick up his phone during an afternoon of shop work and talk about the organization he has been a part of since 2002.

“I actually was interim director for a time in 2005,” said  Shelton, a Wilmington College graduate with a master’s degree in theater from Ohio University. “I then transitioned into creative director, writing our touring shows, designing sets, training puppeteers all that time. That’s still a big part of my responsibility, but I am delegating more.”

Letting go of some of this hands-on puppetry to do more administrative work is proving to be tough.

“It’s a bit of growing pains when you leave behind things you enjoy doing, like training puppeteers, hiring actors from across the country, introducing them to the craft of puppetry,” he said.

This will be his first stint as director in a production the troupe has become well-known for, the chamber opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Performances featuring Madcap puppets, singers and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra are set for Dec. 21-23 at Xavier University.

Shelton performed as one of the larger-than-life puppets in previous productions of “Amahl,” and he has a special affection for the show.

“I see ‘Amahl’ as a sort of emerging tradition,” he said. “We will probably do it every other year, collaborating with Xavier.”

Shelton sees a couple of main goals for the company. “First, to maintain the art of puppetry in the public eye,” Shelton said. Then, longer term, Madcap wants to transition into a permanent space in the revitalizing Westwood business district, possibly to be called the Madcap Puppet and Education Center.

“We want to be building an audience for puppetry in Cincinnati in our own space,” he said. “We want to bring puppet theaters and artists from all over the world and introduce our audiences to them. We want to host puppet festivals, maybe ‘open mic’ nights for artists to create puppet pieces.

“And we’d like to get schools involved. I know there are high schools around here excited about doing their own puppet shows.”

Shelton hopes his company will expand the circle of artists it collaborates with, helping to strengthen Cincinnati’s arts community.

“It’s all about building a puppet culture in Cincinnati,” Shelton said.

Juanjo Mena, principal conductor, Cincinnati May Festival

Juanjo Mena

Juanjo Mena

Juanjo Mena is sitting in his hotel room, just hours away from a big concert with the Montreal Symphony, and what is he doing? He’s poring over programs of the Cincinnati May Festival from the past decade and a half, analyzing the repertoire to plan concert programs for future festivals.

It’s clear that the Basque-born Mena, who has collaborated with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus several times (most recently in Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” in October), has formed a strong bond with Cincinnati’s long-running choral festival and the musical tradition it represents.

That bond really took hold for him, he recalls, with performances such as Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” with the chorus and the CSO.

“I felt a wonderful link with them,” he said. “It is a great choir to do this piece with, and I felt a real connection with them and the orchestra.”

So when festival officials approached him to see if he would consider replacing the retiring James Conlon as conductor, “I said of course I would be interested. The May Festival is a very established and internationally respected festival.”

Mena’s lifelong love for choral music – a big part of Basque society from the church to social clubs to the streets – also factored into his decision.

“I am a conductor because when I was 7 years old, a man came into my classroom and asked me if I would like to sing in the choir,” he said. “From then on, choral music has been part of my life. Whatever else I was doing, I was always close to choral music. I got into orchestral conducting through my choral work.”

Mena talked to fellow Spaniard Jesus Lopez-Cobos, a former CSO music director, several times about the festival and orchestra and community.

“It was all very positive,” Mena said.

“The city of Cincinnati is changing very fast. There are a lot of beautiful places, new parks around the city, lots of restaurants, an amazing new energy. I want to put the May Festival in the middle of this, increase its involvement with the community.”

Does that mean big changes in how the festival is presented?

“We must have respect for what happened in the past,” said Mena. “But what I can bring to the festival is a new energy, a new perspective.

“I think it must not just be in Music Hall, but in the streets, around society. I think all Cincinnati would like to sing. I have some ideas of how to open doors to a new concept, more energy. This is important for the future.”

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