Sunday, June 02, 2002

Risky season pays off for May Festival

        The Cincinnati May Festival took a risk with its ambitious and ground-breaking “Beethoven, Bernstein and Brotherhood” season, which ended last weekend. Despite an uneasy year in Over-the-Rhine, home of Music Hall, and despite a large amount of unfamiliar music — the audience came.

        The festival sold 10,790 tickets for four Music Hall concerts — creeping up by 45 over last season. For the 12th consecutive year, the May Festival budget (almost $2 million) was in the black.

        More impressive than numbers, it was an inspiring season that celebrated diversity.

        “While we may have some difficulty trying to sit down and talk with each other, this May Festival season has proven that we have absolutely no problem singing together,” says James Arthur Williams, adjunct professor of music at Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio.

        “Most notable was how the performers and the audiences demonstrated the highest respect for the diversity in culture as presented in the music selected by Maestro (James) Conlon. The CSU Chorus and the May Festival Chorus performed the repertoire in a manner that let us know how much more we are are alike than we are different.”

        Carole Rigaud, president of the May Festival board, agrees. “This was really taking a chance — really following our hearts and what we felt was right for the community,” she says. “The biggest surprise was the reception of the people, how completely overwhelming it was. Everything was so positive. It was, I think, what our community needed.”

King his hero

        In response to Cincinnati's April 2001 riots, Mr. Conlon, May Festival music director, placed an African-American work on each program, such as Adolphus Hailstork's oratorio, Done Made My Vow.

        “I was gratified by the reaction,” Mr. Conlon said between rehearsals in Music Hall. “The first night I was conducting, when (narrator Clifton Davis) got to the climax of the courtroom scene of (Martin Luther King Jr.'s) speech, and I heard the audience applauding, I said OK. It's made its point.”

        Mr. Conlon grew up in New York, where his father served on the Catholic Interracial Council, an organization that promoted interracial justice. Among his childhood memories is meeting the civil rights leader.

        “Martin Luther King was my hero already, before he was shot. So this comes naturally to me,” he says.

        The programming was innovative enough to be noticed by the national and international press. The May Festival was featured on NPR's Fresh Air, in an interview with Jamie Bernstein Thomas about her new narration for her father's Kaddish Symphony; and on All Things Considered, a spot produced by WGUC's Naomi Lewin.

        The New York Times and London's Financial Times highlighted the May Festival on the front pages of their arts sections.

Artistic highs

        And the stars came, such as mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, singing her 14th festival, and other opera singers, including Donnie Ray Albert, Kristine Jepson and Gary Lakes and former Cincinnatian Pamela Coburn.

        Of the newcomers, the stand-out was 25-year-old Sicilian soprano Desiree Rancatore, whose visa problems caused her to miss the first week. She made it to the second, though, and was the highlight of Beethoven's rarely heard oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives (May 24).

        Artistic highs included the opening night oratorio, Done Made My Vow, by Dr. Hailstork, in a moving Cincinnati premiere, attended by 2,386. The next evening, the historically black Central State University Chorus, directed by William Henry Caldwell, injected energy into spirituals and joined the May Festival Chorus for a memorable performance of Beethoven's Ninth. That program scored the highest season attendance of 3,148.

        “Seeing the CSU Chorus on stage brought tears to my eyes,” says Mr. Williams, who was Mr. Caldwell's professor at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “The only problem I had was that I couldn't stand and yell "A-men' on the Hailstork piece as I would have if I had been in church.”

        The second-best attended concert was the final evening, May 25 (2,954). The well-balanced program included Beethoven's rarely heard Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II.

Challenging works

        On May 24, Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony, with Ms. Bernstein Thomas narrating her own words, drew the fewest listeners (2,302). I found her text ineffective, and both orchestra and chorus performed tentatively for this program.

        In fact, about half of this year's repertoire — including works by Beethoven and Bernstein — was unfamiliar to both the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the May Festival Chorus, says Robert Porco, director of choruses.

        “It was very challenging, because there was a lot of unknown music, even for me,” he says.

        The volunteer singers, who had the task of learning and performing the new music in a musical marathon of five concerts over two weekends, put in more than 100 hours of rehearsals over two weeks, he says.

        For the administration, programming so much new music created the challenge of discovering the great music, versus the mediocre. Further, there were errors in brochures and the program book.

        For instance, musician/educator Glenn Burleigh arranged (he did not compose) “Jesus is a Rock.” And Mr. Williams arranged “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a gospel hymn by Charles Gabriel. Both works were orchestrated by Neal Gittleman, music director of the Dayton Philharmonic.

        Another glitch happened when there turned out to be fewer seats than expected in Covington's newly renovated Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. About 75 to 100 people waited while chairs were rounded up for them.

        “We're trying to get an accurate count so this doesn't happen again,” says Steven Sunderman, director of marketing and development.

        Nevertheless, it was an eye-opening season. Next year's programming will be different, Mr. Conlon says, adding, “But I want to keep this alive, and I've got to think of how.”

        In the end, he hopes people were enlightened by hearing new repertoire.

        “I hope they will walk away with the realization that, as in life, we walk right past beauties without recognizing them,” he says. “How many of these Beethoven pieces do people know? I hope that they go on and listen to more Bernstein.

        “And I hope that they realize the enormous importance and contribution of African-American culture.”

        E-mail: Past columns at


Gallery owner one-woman show
KIESEWETTER: Networks load the summer with reality light
List of summer TV shows
'Abracadabra' adds big, beasty cats
DEMALINE: Best and worst of theater season
- GELFAND: Risky season pays off for May Festival
$1.6 million 'Artworks' wraps shooting today
Carnegie program immerses kids in Islamic culture
Get to it
Reggae show doesn't need Marley stamp
Collector has bear essentials - 1,640 of them
DAUGHERTY: Advice for Class of '02
KENDRICK: Accessible gifts to make life easier
Park road named for fallen Viet hero
Working for the homeless
Burger King debuts 'back-porch' products
MARTIN: Cooking can be a pain in the back
Serve it this week: Bibb lettuce