May Festival: Hemisphere’s oldest choral festival sinks teeth into new musical styles

Roomful of Teeth
Roomful of Teeth

The news broke in October. The May Festival was expanding. Actually, “expanding” is too limited a description. It is undergoing a change as momentous as anything it has experienced in decades.

In a sense, the May Festival finally is pulling itself into the 21st century. 

Yes, there are more performances. But there are more individual programs, as well. And more off-the-classical-music-beaten-path venues, too, stretching all the way from Covington to Clifton Heights. There’s even a performance in a rock ’n’ roll emporium – the Woodward Theater. 

Some people were taken aback by all this change. But if you paid careful attention to the 2018 festival, it was clear change was in the air.

A fresh approach

In his first year as principal conductor, Juanjo Mena instilled a new vibrancy and robustness to the proceedings and to the repertoire, which included the North American premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s “Credo.” MacMillan, arguably the preeminent British composer of our time, is back this year. He’ll be on the podium for a pair of concerts, including a May 18 performance in which he’ll lead the May Festival chorus in his “Seven Last Words from the Cross.”

The 2018 festival had such an invigorating atmosphere that even the news that disgraced conductor James Levine had been bumped from the schedule was soon forgotten. The festival took the opportunity to replace Levine with Eun Sun Kim, the first female conductor in its 146-year history.

The May Festival may be the highest-profile event of Cincinnati’s choral life, but changes like these were long overdue. The series has rested on its laurels for at least a couple of decades. Don’t get me wrong. Much great music has been made during that time. But with prestige comes responsibility  – responsibility to push the art form forward and to build a solid future for American choral music.

This year’s May Festival does that.

May Festival principal conductor Juanjo Mena
May Festival principal conductor Juanjo Mena

Full speed ahead

Mena opens the festival May 17 with a program of unabashedly full-bodied music: Brahms’ “Schicksalslied,” Vaughan Williams’ “Toward the Unknown Region” and the U.S. premiere of Mark Simpson’s much-heralded “The Immortal.”

But two nights before that, on May 15, Mena and Company throw us an audacious musical curve. In a concert billed as a “Festival Extra,” they present Roomful of Teeth, an eight-person “vocal band” whose stated goal is to “mine the expressive potential of the human voice.” To call them unexpected hardly begins to describe their concerts, as they examine the vast tonal and emotional range of the voice and incorporate techniques from around the globe. The group also will join Mena in the May 17 performance of “The Immortal.”

From there, the programming never slows. Poulenc and Mussorgsky, Mahler and Bach. There’s even a concert led by a former May Festival artistic director, the much-loved James Conlon. He will be joined by Cincinnati Opera artistic associate Morris Robinson, who will be seen in “Porgy and Bess” at Music Hall in July.

Mena’s inclusive touch is most evident, though, in the May 19 “Sounds of the City” performance. Admission is free as the maestro brings together the May Festival’s all-volunteer chorus with hundreds of voices from church and community choirs. It is as close as we’ll get to an old-fashioned Saengerfest, the sort of presentation Music Hall was built for.

A long-overdue reunion

Tucked away at the bottom of the listings is something much smaller, but every bit as intriguing.

It’s a performance by the Vocal Arts Ensemble.

What makes this intriguing is that VAE, by most measures Greater Cincinnati’s finest professional vocal ensemble, has been absent from the May Festival for many years. Back in the 1980s, the group was a mainstay. It wasn’t an every-year group, but it appeared either in Music Hall or the Cathedral Basilica in Covington regularly. Then, it disappeared unexpectedly. There were rumors of a rift, though no one could pinpoint it. And now, almost everyone who was involved then has moved on to other ventures.

But soon after Craig Hella Johnson stepped into the directorship in 2013, a new and more ambitious VAE began to emerge. Johnson is a Grammy winner and leader of the Austin-based Conspirare, one of the nation’s leading professional choral ensembles. Nothing would make Johnson happier than for VAE to receive similar acclaim.

Perhaps it is that artistic hunger that brought VAE back into the May Festival fold. Whatever the case, it is back. What a treat.

In some ways, it’s surprising it hasn’t happened sooner. After all, Steven Sunderman is executive director of both organizations. But the two groups’ relationship, which began in 2014, is purely an administrative one. When it comes to artistic planning and direction, the decision-making is separate.

Craig Hella Johnson leading VAE in “Considering Matthew Shepard” in 2017
Craig Hella Johnson leading VAE in “Considering Matthew Shepard” in 2017

‘Considering Matthew Shepard’

As with Roomful of Teeth, VAE’s performance is billed as a “Festival Extra.” It will perform Johnson’s own “Considering Matthew Shepard,” an alternately joyful and heartbreaking oratorio that incorporates words by and about the young gay man who was savagely beaten and left for dead in Wyoming in 1998. The musical styles range from a cowboy song to blues, musical theater, gospel and even a bit of Bach. In fact, the structure of the work is fashioned after Bach’s monumental Passions, one of which (St. Matthew) will close the festival May 25.

“To be honest, I’m not exactly certain how this came about,” said Johnson. But it makes sense. The album of the work, recorded by Conspirare, was nominated for two Grammys and won one. And that group’s tours have taken the work to audiences throughout the country. VAE performed it here in Cincinnati in 2017.

So when the call came, Johnson was delighted to reunite VAE and the May Festival. Indeed, it’s precisely the interaction that attracted him to Cincinnati.

“When I first visited Cincinnati, it felt like a wonderful surprise,” said Johnson. “In many cities, you hear them speak about how collaborative work is the wave of the future. But it’s not often that you see it in practice as naturally and deliberately as one does in Cincinnati. I found it a very tangible thing when I got here.”

As he has grown to know the city, his appreciation for those connections among arts groups has grown as well.

“It all feels so organic and natural,” said Johnson. “This great spirit of collaboration seems to be in the DNA of Cincinnati arts groups. And we’re delighted to be a part of that. I can’t wait to sing this for you – for Cincinnati – one more time.”

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