An A-May-Zing Music Festival

A guest director/composer, leadership on the move, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars promise new energy for our venerable May Festival.
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The May Festival’s 2024 guest director, choral composer Julia Wolfe.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF CINCINNATI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA / ILLUSTRATION BY STEF HADIWIDJAJA

Because the May Festival has been an internationally lauded choral music event for quite a while—celebrating its 150th anniversary last year—its artistic leaders are circumspect with big changes. The organization is known mostly for stability, after all, always showcasing its dedicated volunteer chorus (120 members this year) uniting with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on works by such classical music giants as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Director of Choruses Robert Porco has served for 35 years, and James Conlon, the last music director, served for 37 years.

But 2024 is actually a year of big change for the May Festival, performing at Music Hall on May 17, 18, 23, and 25. And changes start with what will now be annual guest festival directors.

“What we were looking to do was to inject some innovation into the May Festival program,” says Steven Sunderman, the event’s executive director for the past 28 years. In another big change, he’s retiring this year. “We’ve traditionally been a chorus and orchestra with some soloists and a conductor. That’s not necessarily the way people like to listen these days.”

Sunderman says the change has been a project of the festival’s Artistic Advisory Committee and board of directors and has been in the works for about three years. “I’m ecstatic I get to do the first one before I retire, but my retirement didn’t have anything to do with doing it now,” he says.

Porco, who is also retiring this year, is a proponent of this big change as well. “It was thought maybe the older model needed refreshing, and I think this is the way to do it,” he says. “The artistic director could be anyone in the arts—it might be a conductor, and it might be a composer, a poet, or a jazz player.”

This year’s honoree, Julia Wolfe, brings a certain shock of newness to the May Festival. She is a Pulitzer Prize–winning composer for her 2015 oratorio Anthracite Fields, which will be performed on May 23, and her choral fanfare “All that breathes,” commissioned by the festival, will premiere on May 18. A third work from Wolfe, the oratorio Her Story, is being performed on May 25 with vocals from Lorelei Ensemble.

With Wolfe here, the New York–based performing arts organization Bang on a Can will be a major presence at May Festival. Devoted to new classical music but with a rock and roll name, the group was founded in 1987 by Wolfe and composers David Lang (also a Pulitzer winner) and Michael Gordon. Lang and Gordon will have compositions featured at this year’s festival, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars provide the music for Anthracite Fields. The New York Times refers to the All-Stars as “a fiercely aggressive group combining the power and punch of a rock band with the precision and clarity of a chamber ensemble.” Sunderman calls them the May Festival Chorus’s “back-up band.”

Asked about her background, Wolfe says, “I have strong roots in American folk music. Certainly that was probably the earliest and strongest influence. And then I accidentally took a composition class, and it blew my mind that you could write music. That’s where I started to be exposed to more experimental music in classical and jazz and other categories that are hard to define.”

Anthracite Fields uses voice and instruments in adventurous ways, paying tribute to those who worked and too often died in Eastern Pennsylvania coal mines around the turn of the 20th century. It has requiem-like aspects; minimalist passages; some pounding, urgent eruptions; and features both brash and solemn moments as it tells its story. Wolfe grew up near Philadelphia, so she decided to look to local history for an interesting topic, eventually choosing inhabitants of the state’s coal region.

The festival opens May 17 with Joseph Haydn’s late 18th century oratorio The Creation, a masterwork of sacred music inspired from the books of Genesis and Psalms as well as from Milton’s Paradise Lost. While it harkens back to May Festivals of old, this year it takes on a whole new meaning. “When you take away its normal meaning in terms of creation of the world, there is symbolism there,” says Porco. “It represents the past because it’s a classic piece done many times at the May Festival, but the title also suggests that the festival itself is regenerating a little bit and creating a new model.”

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