Change is blooming large at the new May Festival

Juanjo Mena

Juanjo Mena

The May Festival – the oldest, continuously active choral festival in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest arts institution in the Queen City – is embracing real change.

The festival, founded in 1873, returns this year to a renovated Music Hall, May 18-20 and 25-26. It is under new artistic leadership for the first time since 1979.

For those who see this venerable institution as a welcome foothold in the past, this may not be good news. But for those who believe evolution is essential, this change will be welcomed.

What does “change” mean?

First, there seems to be a new mindset – one that recognizes the need to a) become more open to and engaged with the community, and b) expand May Festival’s mission beyond the traditional four concerts of large-scale works for chorus and orchestra. This new mindset is being fostered by a board of directors, led by Melanie Chavez, willing to break free from tradition.

Perhaps the most important change so far has been a structural one, replacing the vision of a single music director with a team approach to artistic planning. The new team consists of Juanjo Mena, principal conductor; Robert Porco, director of choruses; Robert McGrath, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra vice president and general manager; and Nate Bachhuber, CSO’s new director of artistic planning and administration. Their ideas are to be enhanced by a creative partner, new each year, charged to infuse freshness and relevance into every season.

The 2017 creative partner, Gerard McBurney, brought visual and theatrical elements to the festival. This year, Dr. Rollo Dilworth – composer, conductor, educator – brings a community-building approach, reaching across a spectrum of musical groups, styles and ethnicities to engage new audiences in the festival. 

The creative partner also could be a composer or a choreographer. There are no set guidelines.

But the real catalyst is Mena, a lifelong choral and vocal musician turned superstar orchestral conductor, thrilled to return to his roots. “This is part of me,” he said, during an interview here in January. “I know what this is.”

“All the ensembles of the city must be part of us, close to us. The festival should be for all of us.” – Juanjo Mena

Mena, born in 1965, grew up in the Basque region of Spain, an area rich in vocal music tradition. Starting as a boy soprano, he began conducting choirs when he was 16 and continued as a countertenor in Baroque ensembles until, at 24, his orchestral schedule left him no time. As a result, he is that rare orchestral conductor who both understands the complexities of the voice and is deeply rooted in early music. This combination of skills and passions made him an ideal candidate for the May Festival conducting post.

“We felt it was a benefit that Juanjo, as a singer/chorister himself from an early age, has an extensive choral/vocal background,” said Kelley Downing, former May Festival board chair, who led the search committee. “Given May Festival’s new artistic leadership model, we felt he demonstrated a collaborative leadership style, making him an excellent fit as principal conductor.”

Director of Choruses Porco was struck by Mena’s “warmth of personality, and the ease with which he worked with the chorus,” when he first rehearsed May Festival for a CSO concert in 2012. 

“He’s the only conductor I’ve ever worked with,” Porco said, “who stood backstage and shook hands with every chorus member, all 120. The singers were shocked, like, ‘What’s going on?!’ ” 

According to tenor Jeffrey Stivers, “He even mentioned to me how much he appreciated my watching him so closely. Without a doubt, the chorus has never experienced that level of personal appreciation for what they do, and everyone was buzzing about it backstage and at our next rehearsal.”

Soprano Dawn Bruestle recalled: “As I left the stage after the final performance, I remember saying, ‘I hope we have the chance to sing under him again someday. That was absolutely thrilling.’ ”

And this was long before the May Festival post was even available. “His name was on the top of my list when the search began,” Porco said.

Artistic planning is indeed a collaborative process now, with Mena bringing lots of ideas but also doing a lot of listening during conference calls. “He’s very open to suggestions,” Porco said. “It’s a give-and-take, but in no way haphazard.”

Mena wants to promote new music, such as this year’s North American premiere of James MacMillan’s “Credo,” and also explore the early music repertoire so familiar to him as a young musician.

Another key reason Mena was chosen is his belief that the festival must involve and be a reflection of the community at large. 

Three concerts this season extend their reach outward. 

More than a concert work, Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” is subtitled, “A Theatre Piece For Singers, Players, and Dancers,” so auditions were held in January for singers and musical theater performers with a wide range of experience and talents. 

“Sing Hallelujah,” curated by Rollo Dilworth, is a free, ticketed event at Music Hall in which musical styles run the gamut from classical and gospel choirs to country and rock bands. 

And the usually traditional “Messiah” will include singers from across the region, placed in the Music Hall balconies, who will sing along in selected movements of Handel’s masterpiece.

Mena also is sharing the flavor of his homeland by bringing in the Basque male octet, Otxote Txanbela, to sing before concerts. The group also will be sent out into the community. “The festival must be in the streets, must be in the schools,” Mena said. “We must be involving [the community] with us.”

Porco echoed Mena’s sentiments: “If it were up to me, there would be a concert every day for two weeks. It could be the Vocal Arts Ensemble one day, a good church choir another. …”

Mena agrees. “All the ensembles of the city must be part of us, close to us,” he said. “The festival should be for all of us.”

2018 May Festival

May 18, 8 p.m.
Verdi: Requiem
Eun Sun Kim, conductor

May 19, 8 p.m.
Bernstein: “Mass, A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers”
Robert Porco, conductor

May 20, 7 p.m.
“Sing Hallelujah!”
Rollo Dilworth, curator and conductor

May 25, 8 p.m.
Music of Gabrieli, Bernstein, MacMillan and Ravel
Juanjo Mena, conductor

May 26, 8 p.m.
Handel: “Messiah”
Juanjo Mena, conductor

All concerts at Music Hall

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