Sunday, June 6, 2004

May Festival hits a high note with attendance

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

James Conlon starts off his 25th May Festival by leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the playing of the national anthem.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MEGGAN BOOKER
James Conlon's 25th anniversary as May Festival music director was an occasion for major guest stars, blockbuster repertoire and some of the finest performances by the May Festival Chorus in recent memory. Topping that, it was the third-highest attended season in the last three decades.

The two-week festival (May 21-29) brought nearly 12,000 people to Music Hall for four concerts, and another 700 to Covington's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. About 13 percent of the audience was out-of towners from 26 states, plus the District of Columbia.

The May Festival is unique to Cincinnati, but there's also nothing like it in the world. Tradition is important: besides great choral music, the festival has the atmosphere of welcoming spring, with flowers decorating the hall.

For the performers, it's a challenging two weeks of concerts that, Conlon pointed out, "are what normally you'd do in a month. ... Sometimes we slide into home plate."

417 - performers in Mahler's Symphony No. 8, "Symphony of a Thousand"
699 - attended the concert in Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption
1,418 - dinners catered by Elegant Fare
11,996 - people attended four Music Hall concerts
83,000 - hours the May Festival Chorus members put in over the year
$340,000 - 2004 ticket income
$1.8 million - Festival's annual budget
$5.6 million - Festival endowment
They did slide into home plate most of the time. The excitement in Music Hall was palpable for the May Festival's all-Wagner opera night (May 22), which starred soprano Deborah Voigt as a radiant Sieglinde and Clifton Forbis as Siegmund, in Act I from Die Walkure. The second half was equally impressive, with James Morris, one of the great Wagnerian basses of the world, presiding as Hans Sachs in the finale of Die Meistersinger.

Although it was the lowest attended evening, 2,626 music lovers cheered on Voigt, who flew in from Vienna, Austria, fresh from singing Isolde (Tristan und Isolde) two days earlier. Besides the thrill of hearing the extraordinary voices of Voigt and Morris, Forbis also proved to be a season highlight. (Note to Wagner fans: He's booked to sing Siegmund in Canada's first-ever Ring Cycle in Toronto in 2006.)

Ellen Harrison, a Clifton composer, singled out tenor Vinson Cole and his "Prize Song" (Die Meistersinger) as her favorite moment.

"I love both of those operas, and I've been going to the gym and using Die Meistersinger as my gym music, so it was great to hear it," she says.

But Dr. Robert Hasl, of Westwood, had trouble following the texts. "A gentle foray on the May Festival's part into Surcaps might be a worthwhile pursuit," he suggests.

It's hard to top Mahler's massive Symphony No. 8, "Symphony of a Thousand," a jaw-dropping spectacle of 417 performers that concluded the season. At 3,322, the performance had the largest attendance, and management had to mount "sold out" posters outside of Music Hall.

The season's second-highest attendance, 3,223, went to Mozart's Requiem, a well-known choral work in a lesser-known edition by scholar Robert Levin. The chorus shone, from the difficult choral fugues and terror-filled "Dies Irae," to the spiritual, quieter moments.

The festival opened with Handel's Messiah, with 2,820 listeners. The chorus has improved steadily under the directorship of Robert Porco. Textures were clear; diction was precise and the chorus projected an exuberant spirit.

In Sunday's Cathedral Basilica concert, the chorus honored Porco for 15 years as director of choruses with a new choral piece, Stephen Paulus' "All Things are Passing," a setting of a poem by 16th-century mystic St. Teresa of Avila.

There were a few snafus: the opening night program was omitted from program booklets, and it was impossible to follow the order of the program in the Basilica concert.

But the achievements this year were impressive. Conlon, whose "great hits of choral music" program reflected his own festival favorites, is to be commended for steering the festival for a quarter of a century with both traditional choral masterpieces and more risk-taking fare. His "Beethoven, Bernstein and Brotherhood" season in 2002 celebrated diversity. A champion of music by victims of Nazi persecution, he has introduced music by Alexander Zemlinsky, Viktor Ulmann and Kurt Weill, in local and United States premieres.

He's brought the festival wide acclaim (at least five national critics attended this year), introduced great soloists to Cincinnati and galvanized choral and orchestral forces into memorable performances on an impossibly tight schedule.

And he's upheld the traditions that make the May Festival so special. This year, the festival concluded as it has nearly every year since 1873, with the entire hall singing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

Says Betty Ann Wolf of Paddock Hills, "We are so lucky to have Mr. Conlon and Mr. Porco, and the chorus is out of sight. It's a joy to see so many people coming to Music Hall."


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