This year marks James Conlon’s 36th leading the Cincinnati May Festival — and his final year as its music director.
The 143-year-old May Festival, the oldest continuous choral celebration in the Western Hemisphere, returns May 20-28. It will be the final event at Cincinnati Music Hall before it closes for an 18-month, $125 million renovation.
Conlon, who becomes music director laureate, will continue to conduct at the festival occasionally. For his final official season as the May Festival maestro, he said, “I decided to program a festival that would invoke some of my fondest memories of Cincinnati.”
“There is a concept and a thought behind each of the works,” Conlon said. “Each has special meaning to me or represents my history.” Here are nine of his concepts and thoughts.
1. The May 20 opening concert is an all-Mozart program. “If you put a gun to my head and said, ‘You can only play, conduct or listen to one composer,’ it would be Mozart,” Conlon said. “For me it’s the most perfect and sublime music, and it never outlives its magic. It grows on me: pieces I’ve conducted fairly rarely, pieces I’ve conducted often — his music never loses its fascination to me.”
2. Included on that opening night concert is “Exsultate, Jubilate.” The title and opening line of the joyous piece means “Rejoice, be glad.” “This was the very first piece I conducted on my first year as music director in 1979,” Conlon said.
3. The May 21 second program will be a concert performance of Verdi’s “Otello,” based on Shakespeare’s play about the jealous general tricked into murdering his wife. “Opera represents a very special part of my years,” Conlon said. “I chose ‘Otello’ because I consider it the absolute zenith of Italian opera.”
4. The annual performance at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, set for May 22 this year, is Conlon’s personal contribution to May Festival tradition. He had conducted choral music in churches — “It’s something I love doing,” he said — and he suggested finding a venue for the festival. The Covington cathedral filled the bill, and for 36 years the basilica concert has been a festival highlight.
5. Conlon frequently commissioned new music for the festival, and two world premieres will be given at the basilica. One is by a young composer, Julia Adolphe; the other is by Alvin Singleton, a lifelong Conlon friend who the conductor called “one of today’s most important African-American composers.”
6. The festival’s fourth concert, May 27 at Music Hall, features Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater.” Conlon conducted the 1877 work as a guest conductor the year before he became May Festival music director. “It’s a sublime, beautiful piece, one of the most beautiful I know. It’s by a popular composer who has written a lot of music that the general public is not familiar with. When I first conducted it here, it had not been performed since the 1890s. It’s a very special piece, very close to my heart.”
7. For the May 28 concluding festival concert, Conlon conducts Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” an oratorio with a biblical text. Written in German in 1846, it represents the essence of what inspired the May Festival when German immigrants kicked it off in the 1870s. “‘Elijah’ is the coming together of all the parts — it’s not a choral piece accompanied by an orchestra, it’s not an orchestral piece that has some excerpts for chorus, it’s not a piece for soloists accompanied by orchestra and chorus. All the elements are equal and share in the substance of that work.
8. Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus is the traditional closing number for every May Festival, sung by the chorus and the audience. “When I was starting, a board member said, ‘I have one question, Mr. Conlon: Will we continue to sing the “Hallelujah” Chorus at the end of the festival?’“ Conlon recalled. “I said, ‘Do you want to continue singing it?’ She said, ‘Oh, yes.’ And I said, ‘Well, then, you’re going to do that.’”
9. While he’s in Cincinnati for the festival, Conlon will travel to Columbus for the Governor’s Awards for the Arts, where he will receive the Irma Lazarus Award from the Ohio Arts Council, named for the legendary Cincinnati arts patron.
Conlon’s career is far from over. He was recently named conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Italy, and he will continue to serve as music director for the Los Angeles Opera.
“Artists need and want constant renewal,” he said. “It’s part of what keeps us interesting over a long time.”