Dream team of conductors leads new-look Cincinnati May Festival

By Thom Mariner

Juanjo Mena

Last spring, James Conlon, after 37 seasons, led his final concert as May Festival music director. In the interim, the organization announced a revised leadership structure made up of a principal conductor, a creative partner and a director of choruses.

Juanjo Mena has been designated principal conductor, beginning with the 2018 season. He will lead artistic planning and conduct most, but not all, concerts beginning next season. For this interim season, four guest conductors of international renown have been engaged to lead concerts at the Taft Theatre.

Gerard McBurney

Creative partner for the current season is composer/writer/director Gerard McBurney, whose charge it is to infuse concerts with creativity and innovation. Each creative partner, a rotating position, will bring her/his unique skill set to bear in enhancing that season’s repertoire. McBurney’s “Dream Project” for 2017 will incorporate staging, technology and design to enhance audience members’ experience in attending Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius.”

Robert Porco, entering his 27th season, will provide continuity in his ongoing role as director of choruses. He will conduct, along with May Festival Youth Chorus director James Bagwell, this year’s concert at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption.

Tickets: mayfestival.com

Friday, May 19
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 and Walter Braunfels: “Te Deum” (1920-21)

Markus Stenz

Markus Stenz

The conductor: Markus Stenz is chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conductor-in-residence for the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.

Acclaim: “Sparks flew on the stage as (Stenz) led the players through a performance that combined historically informed practices … and striking ideas about dynamics and pacing to deliver an ear-opening experience.” Tim Smith, Baltimore Sun, reviewing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Marcus Overton of the San Diego Union-Tribune called Stenz’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “the most goose-bump thrilling I’ve ever heard.”

Insight: This will be not just another performance of a popular concert work. Stenz is known for bringing a fresh approach to standard repertoire. Expect quick tempi and minimal-vibrato bowing techniques common in Beethoven’s time, and tons of energy. The Braunfels opener is a broad-scale late Romantic work from a composer realizing a rediscovery right now. A bit of a curious choice, but could be an apt complement to the Beethoven.

Saturday, May 20
Mendelssohn: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” incidental music

Matthew Halls

Matthew Halls

The conductor: British conductor Matthew Halls is artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival. He first came to prominence as a keyboard player and early music conductor, but is now becoming recognized for his work with major symphony orchestras and opera companies, in music of all periods.

Acclaim: Robert Rollin of ClevelandClassical.com praised Halls’s Mozart for “remarkably colorful dynamics and sensitive control of tempi. Notwithstanding his youthfulness, Halls showed mature and outstanding interpretive skills, lending grace and beauty to the entire concert.”

Insight: Most of us know Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” but here’s a chance to hear the complete incidental music, with actors, dancers and staging. Halls refers to Mendelssohn’s music as “misunderstood.” He calls it an “intoxicating blend” of Classical and Romantic traditions, in how it “fizzes and crackles with infectious underlying rhythms” and “broad-sweeping melodies,” and the power it has to “thrill and charm in equal measure.”

Friday, May 26
Elgar: “The Dream of Gerontius”

Michael Francis

Michael Francis

The conductor: British-born Michael Francis is currently music director of the Florida Orchestra and San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival.
After several years as a tenured double-bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra, he came to prominence as a conductor in 2007, replacing an indisposed Valery Gergiev.

Acclaim: “The young Englishman … is a great hit with our audience, bringing just the right touch of knowing wit, uncomplicated musicality, good spirits and schoolboy snark to the proceedings.” – Berkshire Review, San Francisco Symphony

Insight: “Gerontius,” a grand Victorian epic composed in 1900, is widely regarded as Elgar’s finest choral work. This is Part II of Gerard McBurney’s “Dream Project,” and a world away from the fleet, rhythmic world of Mendelssohn.
Janelle Gelfand of the Cincinnati Enquirer called Francis “a young conductor whose star is on the rise” two years ago when he guested with the CSO. He is praised for his ability to connect with orchestra players and audiences alike.

Saturday, May 27
J.S. Bach: Mass in B Minor

Harry Bicket

Harry Bicket

The conductor: Especially noted for his interpretation of baroque and classical repertoire, Harry Bicket is artistic director of The English Concert, one of the United Kingdom’s finest period orchestras, and chief conductor of Santa Fe Opera.

Acclaim: Reviewing a 2012 performance of the B Minor Mass at London’s BBC Proms, Geoffrey Norris of The Telegraph described it as “an exceptionally remarkable evening. Bicket … created a wonderfully organic entity and an indelibly poignant, probing performance of Bach’s masterpiece.”

Insight: According to Bicket: “The B Minor Mass is rightly seen as being at the pinnacle of Western culture, all the more remarkably because it was never originally conceived as a whole, and Bach never even heard it performed in its entirety during his lifetime.” The work is an anthology, of sorts, representing the diverse musical styles in which Bach composed during his lifetime, but most important is the work’s visceral, yet profound, emotional impact.

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