Julia Wolfe shapes the 2024 May Festival

Composer as curator

This spring marks the eighth year since the end of James Conlon’s landmark 37-year run as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival. For North America’s oldest choral festival, it was an ideal time to reflect on the path ahead.

As Steven Sunderman, the festival’s executive director, noted, “For a lot of years, we didn’t make many changes here.” 

Those years are over.

On the heels of celebrating its 150th year, the May Festival starts this season adopting a new model for artistic leadership. Instead of having an ongoing music director, the festival intends for audiences to benefit from the changing perspectives of annual festival directors. The plan is to nurture artistic innovation and “exciting new collaborations,” according to a festival release.

While future festival directors may come from artistic disciplines besides music, the choice for the first year of this brave new world is one of the most respected names in contemporary choral music – as a composer. It also makes a strong statement about the festival’s commitment to remain relevant to today’s audiences.

Julia Wolfe
(Photo by Peter Serling)

A natural curator

In hindsight, Julia Wolfe’s selection as the 2024 festival director was almost obvious. The Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship – often dubbed the “genius grant” – has made a specialty of large-scale works for chorus and orchestra. 

In a phone interview from her home in New York City, Wolfe said the role was instantly appealing. “It was out of the blue,” she said of the phone call from May Festival leaders. “That was exciting.”

More importantly, though, she said, “I could tell it was a very collaborative conversation. Curating and having conversations is natural for me. This idea of bringing it all into the orchestras is very interesting.”

As one would expect, Wolfe’s work is central to the 2024 festival, with three of four programs featuring her music. Those include the premiere of a commission from the May Festival and the work that earned her the 2015 Pulitzer. 

Wolfe’s compositions are unique in contemporary music for incorporating movement and theatricality, multimedia elements and eclectic musical influences. The latter range from the medieval (and “neo-medieval”) – there’s a definite taste of early 13th-century composer Pérotin and contemporary master Arvo Pärt in her vocal writing – to Appalachian folk music to rock music. “I once had an audience member tell me after a concert that it sounded like King Crimson,” she said.

New commission, Pulitzer winner

First up, on May 18, is the commission’s premiere, “All that breathes,” paired with “Pretty,” an orchestral piece written in 2023 for the Berlin Philharmonic. 

Wolfe said “All that breathes” embraces the massive sound of collective breath and exhalation. “They thought it would be nice if there were a world premiere,” she said. “It was a really fun task – fun to think about what kind of sound can you get” from a chorus.

In “Pretty,” she said, “I very much went in what I call the opposite direction from their standard direction. I thought, ‘I’m going to go so American, down and earthy.’ It has raw, sonic music gestures – very rhythmic – and has got body energy to it.”

Her website describes it as “a raucous celebration – embracing the grit of fiddling, the relentlessness of work rhythms, and inspired by the distortion and reverberation of rock and roll.” She was a little concerned about the Berlin audience’s response, but, “to my delight, it was an incredible response,” she said.

The festival’s second weekend, May 23 and 24, features two of the works that NPR dubbed “docutorios.” They combine characteristics of traditional large-scale choral compositions with investigations of issues that have historical roots but still resonate today.

“There really is a documenting of historical documents, letters, speeches – anything is fair game for the text if it can convey the story,” Wolfe said. “I take tons and tons of notes and usually something jumps out to me.”

While absorbing elements of popular culture into classical music isn’t rare (technically, it never was; it just felt like it after the 1960s), mixing musical composition with social issues is unusual. For Wolfe, the key is that what she writes about still matters today. “If it was a subject that didn’t have resonance today, I might not be so interested.”

Slated for May 23 is the work that earned Wolfe her Pulitzer, 2015’s “Anthracite Fields.” The 65-minute work, for chorus and small instrumental ensemble, looks at America’s relationship to coal – particularly the anthracite coal mines near her childhood home in eastern Pennsylvania. Anthracite is more desirable because it burns more cleanly. It fueled much
of the industrialization of the early 20th century, but it also took a heavy toll on those who mined it.

The work’s point isn’t political, though. “It’s an examination rather than a black and white,” Wolfe said. “It’s a dialogue with the audience.”

There’s a similar investigation in the work for May 24, “Her Story,” a 2022 co-commission by five of the nation’s major orchestras. Using letters of Abigail Adams and excerpts of Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?”, the work for 10 women’s voices and orchestra traces the struggle for equality from 1776 to the 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment, which enshrined women’s right to vote in federal elections.

“Her Story” is concert music, but with a major theatrical component. “It’s amazing how much the singers are doing,” Wolfe said. “There are lots of physical gestures embedded in the score. Then the director figures out how to realize it. Very much, the power of those women comes across on stage.”

Handling the instrumental duties in “Anthracite Fields” is the Bang on a Can All-Stars, an ensemble Wolfe co-founded. Its players flow easily to and from traditional and modern musical idioms. “There was a need to find a home for that kind of music,” she said about founding the All-Stars. 

Singing in “Her Story” is the Lorelei Ensemble – again a group with which Wolfe has collaborated before.

Diverse voices

Wolfe has assembled programs that include plenty beyond her own work. David Lang’s “the national anthems,” to be heard May 18, explores common themes in the world’s national anthems, including that securing freedom is often a struggle, and it can be easily lost. 

Paired with “Anthracite Fields” is Michael Gordon’s “Natural History,” featuring the Steiger Butte Singers of Chiloquin, Ore. Commissioned to mark the centennial of the National Park System, it’s a take on humans’ spiritual connection to nature and to Crater Lake in particular.

“It’s such a different kind of singing,” Wolfe said. “It’s a different way of using the voice. This raw crying is going to be so amazing to the audience.”

She’s not concerned that these works may be too different for the Music Hall audience. “I’m the beneficiary of people having heard so many things, having been exposed to so much sonic complexity. Everybody’s ears are open. 

“I don’t need to spoon-feed audiences. They understand how to put pieces together.”

2024 May Festival

All performances feature the May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony.
7:30 p.m. at Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202

  • May 17: Franz Joseph Haydn: “The Creation.” Robert Porco, conductor
  • May 18, “Anthems”: Julia Wolfe: “All that breathes” and “Pretty” •  David Lang: “the national anthems” • Ralph Vaughan-Williams: “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Stephanie Childress, conductor
  • May 23, “Voices of the Earth”: Michael Gordon: “Natural History” • Julia Wolfe: “Anthracite Fields.” Bang on a Can All-Stars, Steiger Butte Singers. Teddy Abrams, conductor
  • May 24: Faure: “Requiem” • Julia Wolfe: “Her Story.” Lorelei Ensemble. François López-Ferrer, conductor

mayfestival.com or call 513-381-3300

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