May Festival reshaping artistic leadership model

Following its 2023 150th anniversary celebration, the Cincinnati May Festival has announced Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe as its inaugural festival director.

The 2024 May Festival begins on Friday, May 17, and includes a series of events throughout the rest of that month. This year, it’s introducing an artistic leadership model that features an annual festival director and a director of choruses, whose position it is to rehearse and shape the ensemble.

The festival director, drawn from a variety of artistic disciplines, will be engaged each year to “offer fresh perspectives and experiences that infuse the Festival with artistic innovation and exciting new collaborations,” according to a May Festival release.

Executive director Steven Sunderman said the goal of the change is to “invigorate all aspects of artistic planning and preparation” through the close collaboration between the artistic leads. He views this format as a way to bring fresh perspectives and experiences to the festival every year.

Julia Wolfe (Photo: Peter Serling)

“Julia’s achievements are unique, and as the May Festival lays the foundation for its next 150 years, Julia is the perfect person to serve as our inaugural festival director in this new model,” Sunderman said.

In announcing the hire, Sunderman highlighted Wolfe’s prolific work as a composer for full orchestra and chorus. Her music includes theatrical and multimedia elements, and she “expertly uses the art form to tell relevant stories on a variety of subjects,” Sunderman said.

The 2024 festival will feature the world premiere of “All that breathes,” a new choral fanfare Wolfe composed especially for the occasion. Performances will also showcase her compositions “Her Story,” “Anthracite Fields” and “Pretty,” along with works by her longtime collaborators Michael Gordon and David Lang.

“I am thrilled to be working with the forward-looking May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to bring powerful musical narratives to the historic May Festival,” Wolfe said. “Pairing new with old, the works resonate together across time and space to share the powerful vehicle of music – expressing who we were and who we are today.”

A look at the 2024 May Festival

In this new role, Wolfe will work closely with the May Festival’s longtime director of choruses, Robert Porco, who will prepare the 140-voice ensemble for this one last round of concerts. Matthew Swanson was recently named to succeed Porco following this year’s festival.

The festival will pay tribute to Porco’s 35-year tenure with a community celebration on March 23 at Music Hall. He is the longest-tenured director of choruses in the festival’s history.

“I love Julia’s music. It is imaginative, interesting and eclectic,” said Porco. He has a personal connection “Anthracite Fields,” he said, because his father worked in the steel mills for 41 years.

“The quotes within the piece drawn from people who worked in the coal mines resonated with me,” he added. “Her music is fascinating and extraordinary, and I look forward to sharing it with everyone here in Cincinnati.”

Porco is also one of four conductors to lead the May Festival Chorus and CSO in this year’s performances, in addition to Teddy Abrams, Stephanie Childress and François López-Ferrer. Abrams is music director of the Louisville Orchestra and was “Musical America’s” 2022 Conductor of the Year. Franco-British conductor Childress has already made a strong impression in Europe and the U.S. at the age of 24, and is concluding her time as assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

López-Ferrer is a former associate conductor of the CSO and May Festival, and son of the late Jesus Lopez-Cobos, CSO artistic director from 1986-2001.

Featured soloists include soprano Camilla Tilling, tenor Nicholas Phan. Ensembles include Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Lorelei Ensemble, the Steiger Butte Singers of Chiloquin, Oregon and the May Festival Youth Chorus.

Schedule and tickets

  • Friday, May 17 – Robert Porco leads the May Festival Chorus and CSO in Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio, “The Creation.” The piece depicts the creation of the world, with text drawn from the Book of Genesis, the Book of Psalms and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Featured vocalists are Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling and Grammy-nominated tenor Nicholas Phan.
  • Saturday, May 18 – Stephanie Childress makes her May Festival debut in a program inspired by the power of anthems, with music by Wolfe and the Bang on a Can ensemble. The concert opens with the world premiere of Wolfe’s “All that breathes.” Then, the CSO’s string section joins the May Festival Chorus for the United States premiere of the orchestral version of “the national anthems,” by David Lang, consisting of lines and concepts from all of the world’s national anthems. The CSO is then featured in Wolfe’s “Pretty.” The chorus returns for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ plea for peace, “Dona nobis pacem,” which was written in the years leading up to World War II, with text from poetry by Walt Whitman, the Latin Mass and more.
  • Thursday, May 23 – Teddy Abrams leads a program that reflects both the beauty of the natural world – in Michael Gordon’s “Natural History” – as well as the sometimes-difficult relationship between industry and the environment – evoked in Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anthracite Fields.” The Steiger Butte Singers will sing and play together in a circle around a large ceremonial Klamath drum. They’ll appear as soloists alongside the May Festival Chorus, CSO and 30 brass players, and as percussionists spread throughout the hall.
  • Saturday, May 25 – Closing night begins with Wolfe’s oratorio “Her Story,” led by François López-Ferrer. Premiered in 2022, Wolfe’s piece incorporates historically significant texts from the longstanding fight for women’s equality. These range from a letter written by Abigail Adams and words attributed to Sojourner Truth to public attacks directed at women protesting for the right to vote and political satire. The all-female Lorelei Ensemble joins the CSO for this immersive and visual presentation. Staging is by Anne Kauffman. The festival concludes with a performance of Gabriel Fauré’s familiar, hopeful “Requiem.”

In March, May Festival will celebrate Porco’s birthday and his tenure with the May Festival. Bob’s Big Sing: A May Festival Reunion will take place Saturday, March 23, from noon to 5 p.m. 

By the close of the 2024 festival, Porco will have worked with more than 1,300 May Festival singers. He’ll have prepared 539 distinct choral works for 174 concerts, 27 of which he conducted. All are welcome to participate in this special gathering that includes an Italian-themed meal in the Music Hall.

Subscription ticket packages for the 2024 May Festival and Bob’s Big Sing are currently available. Individual tickets go on sale on Feb. 27.

2024 Cincinnati May Festival

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