May 2006 Issue
Season of Song
Music lovers flock to Cincinnati for the May Festival, a choral extravaganza par excellence.
When May comes to Cincinnati's venerable Music Hall, it brings with it a musical tour de force that's second to none. Every spring since 1873, the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus - the oldest continuing choral group in the Western Hemisphere - joins the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and an international group of soloists to present the city with a bouquet of operatic, sacred and secular works. This year's festival, held May 19â€“27, continues the tradition of choral excellence. Some 150 doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and others from all walks of life will voluntarily rearrange their lives for months to pour themselves into some of the most remarkable music in the world.
The run-up to the two weekends of the May Festival starts shortly after the New Year, when a stream of people make their way through an obscure entrance of Music Hall for an early-evening rehearsal. They are men and women of widely varying appearance and age, including 35-year chorus veterans. Some have extensive music degrees; others have none. They will rehearse steadily until 8:30 p.m., take a short break, and continue until 10. But these Tuesday rehearsals are only the tip of the iceberg; hours of practice beforehand have ensured that the participants know the score and have perfected the languages involved in singing it.
They will not be paid in money. But the experience is a choral singer's dream.
The importance of the May Festival to the nation's music scene can be traced through its conductors. This year, James Conlon, the festival's director since 1979, became the third American to conduct 250 performances of the Metropolitan Opera; the other two who achieved that feat were Cincinnati native James Levine, who directed the May Festival from 1974 to 1978, and Thomas Schippers, who conducted Cincinnati's symphony from 1970 until his death in 1977.
The fest is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Four concerts will be held in the elegant environs of the Cincinnati Music Hall, which opened in time for the fourth festival in 1878. The sumptuous interior is awash in hues of burgundy, gray, gold and white; the domed auditorium ceiling contains Arthur Thomas' painted "Allegory of the Arts," as well as a crystal and brass chandelier weighing two tons. More than 3 million bricks comprise the garrets, turrets and gables that accentuate the exterior.
The second concert venue, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, is located across the river in Covington, Kentucky. Built between 1894 and 1915, it is one of only 35 minor basilicas in the country. Pope Pius XII elevated the cathedral's rank in 1953 because of its antiquity, dignity, historical importance and significance as a center of worship.
This year's concert schedule opens with the world premiere of Adolphus Hailstork's Earthrise and ends with Franz Joseph Haydn's oratorio, The Creation. The Serenade to Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which brought Sergei Rachmaninov to tears at its premiere in 1938, is featured in a program focusing on British composers. Two of the concerts are dedicated to Mozart's music, in honor of the 250th anniversary of his birth: a concert of sacred work and the secular comedic opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio.
"In May, you take a deep breath and kiss your family and friends goodbye, because rehearsals are every night for 17 to 19 days in a row," says Lawrence Coleman, whose paying job is to run the train system at the Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport.
However, for the past eight years, he's been performing with the festival that he calls "a musical marathon." "You train for it in the same way," he observes. "It's a labor of love, and your family and your workplace both need to be there to support you."
Coleman's mother, a retired music teacher and pianist, made sure her family was musically literate and educated.
"I come from very humble beginnings ... music was not an option at our house," he says. His grandparents pinched pennies to be able to afford his mother's music lessons.
"And now," he says, "I am privileged to sing this fabulous music with the orchestra and the great conductors - Maestro Porco and James Conlon. I know just how lucky I am."
The skill level required by director of choruses Robert Porco is extremely demanding and the chorus responds with intense dedication. For example, Coleman relates the story of a chorus member who, during rehearsals, had to spend time in the hospital. Amazingly, though, the chorister had practiced feverishly with rehearsal CDs during his recovery. It was as though he had never missed a beat.
With the taxing schedule and heavy demands away from rehearsals, what keeps singers going? The great music. Coleman says that during his first season, the festival included the tremendous rhythmic chant of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. "When I walked offstage from that performance, it was like I had died and gone to heaven," he says. "I was completely hooked." (The composer's splendid work is on the program this year as well.)
"It's a professional culture," singer Susie Faas says. "Everything is geared to producing great music."
Every chorus member, too, is dedicated to this mission. For Faas, the passion she has for the festival - her 10th - makes the time commitment well worth the effort. Despite being the busy mother of 11-year-old twins, the Mason resident eagerly awaits the festival's whirlwind practice and performance schedule.
The demands of parenthood are not yet a factor for Jon and Kristi Cetti. Both moved to Cincinnati to take jobs at Procter & Gamble, he from Pittsburgh, she from Minneapolis. Jon thought that singing with the May Festival would be a good way to meet congenial people when he arrived here; he's in his fifth year with the festival. Last year Kristi auditioned and became a part of the May Festival Chorus. The Cettis say that when they have children only one of them will be able to stay with the demands of the chorus. "I would never have wanted to go into music as a career," Jon adds, "but to experience this is really wonderful."
It is that deep dedication that impresses Porco.
"The May Festival Chorus' commitment level is extraordinary," says Porco, who has conducted the group at Carnegie Hall three times since he took leadership in 1989.
"Sometimes professional choristers become jaded and the music becomes a job, but this is a labor of love, year after year. Our rehearsal schedule is very spare for the number and kind of works we perform, and it puts tremendous responsibility on them. I drive them very hard and they respond with exceptional quality."
When You Go...
Music Hall is located just north of Cincinnati's main downtown area at 1243 Elm St. The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is at 1140 Madison Ave. in Covington, Kentucky.
Music Hall concerts begin at 8 p.m.; the Cathedral concert starts at 7 p.m. Ticket prices range from $26 to $87. Pre-concert dinners are available May 20, 26 and 27 for $27.
For more information, call 513/381-3300 or visit www.mayfestival.com.
Visitors can find accommodations and dining information at www.cincinnatiusa.com.
Gala opening night: Adolphus Hailstork's Earthrise and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana at Music Hall
Ralph Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music and Toward the Unknown Region with Michael Tippett's Child of Our Time at Music Hall
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sacred music Vesperae de Dominica and Vesperae Solennes de Confessor. The May Festival Youth Chorus, under the direction of James Bagwell, opens the concert with the composer's Venite populi, Ave verum corpus and Sancta Maria, Mater Dei at Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio at Music Hall, with guest narrator Michael York, stage and screen actor, who will also play the speaking role of Bassa Selim.
Franz Joseph Haydn's The Creation at Music Hall