May Festival names familiar face director of choruses

Following a national search, the Cincinnati May Festival selected Matthew Swanson to serve as its next director of choruses.

The May Festival Chorus serves as the core artistic element of the Cincinnati May Festival, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. The mostly volunteer ensemble is also the official chorus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops.

Swanson joined the chorus for the 2011-2012 season as a member of its tenor section and has continued to rise through the ranks over the course of the past decade. He currently serves as director of the May Festival Youth Chorus. He’s also in charge of special projects and serves as associate director of choruses behind outgoing director Robert Porco.

Swanson’s term begins June 1.

Matthew Swanson

“The May Festival, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops have been continuing sources of inspiration since I arrived in Cincinnati 12 years ago, and I look forward to our future collaborations,” Swanson said. 

He went on to thank CSO Music Director Louis Langrée and Pops Conductor John Morris Russell for their “indelible examples of musicianship, leadership and humanity.” 

“I am especially grateful to Robert Porco, whose commitment to excellence and volunteerism has been transformational for the May Festival and for me,” Swanson continued. “Together with the May Festival Choruses, I am eager to ensure that Cincinnati’s choral community grows even more active and vibrant in the years ahead.”

Finding the right person for the job

The May Festival Chorus consists of 130 Greater Cincinnati singers who devote more than 45,000 hours in rehearsals and performances annually. In his new role, Swanson will work closely with those performers individually and as a group to prepare them for featured appearances at the May Festival and with the CSO and Cincinnati Pops.

Perhaps just as important, Swanson will become the primary ambassador and advocate of the chorus and May Festival. It will be his job to attract new collaborations and build the international reputations of the group and the festival.

Steven Sunderman, the May Festival’s executive director, described Swanson’s appointment as preserving the festival’s longstanding commitment to “engage, energize and connect our community with the highest quality performances of great choral music.”

While the May Festival didn’t not provide details about the search process, its leadership described it as “extensive.” Sunderman and Board Chair Christy Horan both voiced their support for Swanson as the right person for the job.

In a statement, Sunderman described Swanson as being instrumental in the May Festival’s development and evolution, not only in the musical aspects of the organization, but also furthering its involvement with the community.

In collaboration with the May Festival administration, Swanson worked to expand the organization’s commitment to inclusion and access. That includes ensuring all aspects of participation in the May Festival Choruses are cost-free for Chorus and Youth Chorus members. Swanson also received credit for introducing a robust vocal instruction program and bringing a series of in-school choral clinics to area middle and high schools.

“Matthew’s talent, character, and passion for the art form will extend and expand this commitment as the May Festival continues to be a relevant asset and resource for the community,” Sunderman said.

Meet Matthew Swanson

A native of southeast Iowa, Swanson earned his undergraduate degree in trumpet performance and American Studies at Notre Dame. He also holds master’s degrees in choral conducting and choral studies from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and King’s College, Cambridge, respectively. He went on to earn a doctor of musical arts degree in conducting from CCM.

Since joining May Festival’s leadership team, Swanson has worked side-by-side with Porco. In 2015, Swanson took part in the May Festival Choral Conducting Fellowship. That experience provided him with experience in the day-to-day management of symphonic choral organization. Duties ranged from artistic planning and budgeting to philanthropic work and community engagement.

May Festival Youth Chorus

Highlights of Swanson’s tenure include the creation of an annual May Festival Youth Chorus commissioning project and the presentation of community choral concerts. His portfolio of special projects includes productions of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and “Candide,” and he organized a community chorus for a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in 2018.

Swanson also spearheaded “25 for 25,” a community-based commission project that was part of the festival’s 150th anniversary activities earlier this year.

Beyond the May Festival, Swanson’s affiliations have included the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in New York City. He’s also served on the faculty and served as a conductor at both Xavier University and CCM.

“I’ve known Matthew for over 10 years, and he is an exceptionally talented and intelligent young man,” Porco said. “I am pleased that my dear colleague will inherit the responsibilities of the position and lead the May Festival Chorus into its next chapter.”

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