Enter your email address and click subscribe to receive new articles in your email inbox:

Conlon, May Festival Bring Message to Cincinnati

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jun 1, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

  Ever since Cincinnati's 2001 race riots, the Cincinnati May Festival and its music director, James Conlon, have been deeply involved in helping heal the community’s wounds. The festival’s home base, historic Music Hall (1877), is situated in Over-the-Rhine. the neighborhood, where the violence began. Diverse, inclusive programming and casting are major priorities and have been since 2002, when Conlon paired Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with gospel offerings from the Central State University Chorus (Wilberforce, Ohio).
   This year’s festival, May 19-27, restated the brotherhood theme in a big way. with performances of Adolphus Hailstork, Michael Tippet, Mozart and Haydn. The opening program had a direct connection with 2002.  Hailstork, whose “Done Made My Vow” was heard on the 2002 opening night, returned to launch the 2006 festival with a premiere modeled on Beethoven’s Ninth.
   “EarthRise,” commissioned by the festival, takes its name from the photos of Earth rising over the lunar landscape sent back by the Apollo astronauts. Scored for two choirs and orchestra – one choir to be African-American – this 28-minute “free fantasy” mixes Schiller’s “Ode to Joy’ with themes from all four movements of the Beethoven symphony, some more explicit than others. The last 20 bars of Beethoven’s finale, for instance, play out during the harmonic fury at the beginning, while Hailstork inverts the opening theme of Beethoven’s third movement during a slow section of his new work.
   The composer creates division through language. The 133-voice May Festival Chorus sang in German (“O Freunde”) the 55-voiced Brazeal Dennard Chorale from Detroit answered in “urban speak” (“Brother, Sister”) until both groups settled on English. Adding a visual metaphor to the unity theme, the choirs intermingled during an orchestral interlude. Hailstork creates his own catchy “hymn of joy” which, like Beethoven, he treats to an exhilarating set of variations. In a kind of signature flourish, the first four notes of the Ninth Symphony are heard at the very end.
   “Carmina Burana,” also with Conlon and the Cincinnati Symphony, brought the May Festival Youth Chorus and Cincinnati Children’s Choir to the stage. Among the soloists, tenor Rodrick Dixon was a crying, full-voiced roasted swan (“Cignus istus”) baritone Lester Lynch negotiated the tricky falsetto of “Cours d’amours” admirably and French soprano Norah Amsellem soared effortlessly to her high D in “Dulcissime.”
   May Festival Chorus Director Robert Porco conducted the second concert, May 20, at Music Hall. Tippett’s oratorio “A Child of Our Time” receiving its May Festival premiere.  It is not an easy work to comprehend without reference to the program notes, but its text, inspired by Kristallnacht, the 1938 Nazi pogrom against the Jews, could have been ripped from today’s headlines: “We cannot have them in our Empire. They shall not work, nor draw a dole. Let them starve in No-Man’s Land,” rang the “Chorus of the Self-Righteous.” Elsewhere, soprano Cynthia Haymon’s bluesy “How can I cherish my man in such days or feed my children on so small a wage?” led poignantly into the Negro spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus.” Lynch prefaced a stirring “Go Down Moses” with the recitative “Men Were Ashamed of What Was Done.” Dixon’s “The Boy Sings in His Prison” was icy and spine-chilling.
   Bringing lush romanticism to the concert were Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music” (from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”) with soloists Haymon, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, Dixon and Lynch, and “Toward the Unknown Region,” a Walt Whitman setting about courage and hope. Porco, architect of the fine chorus since 1979, led the CSO and the festival chorus in both works with deep feeling and insight.
   The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky, was the site of the May 21 all-Mozart concert. Conlon conducted the CSO and members of the chorus in “Vesperae de Confessore,” K.321 and 339, with soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, Pancella, tenor John Aler and bass Morris Robinson as soloists. Also programmed were three smaller sacred works for organ and the Youth Chorus, led by the latter’s director, James Bagwell. The popular venue, site of the world’s largest stained glass window with engulfing acoustics to match was sold out for the event.
   The second weekend opened May 26 at Music Hall with a concert version of “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” featuring a narration commissioned by Conlon from New York writer Marie Therese Squerciati. Conlon’s choice of opera was strategic, particularly in the post-911 world, with its heightened animosity between Muslims and Christians. Narrator was actor Michael York, who also performed the spoken role of Bassa (Pasha) Selim, the noble Turk who frees his European captives rather than exact revenge.
   The cast was young, good-looking and both vocally and dramatically adept. All were May Festival debutantes (for German tenor Matthias Klink, it was also his U.S. debut). Soprano Mary Dunleavy as Konstanze won a lengthy ovation for her bravura showpiece “Matern aller Arten,” while soprano Amanda Babyan, a spirited, hip-swinging Blonde, taunted the Turkish overseer Osmin with some impressive high E’s. Robinson was a darkly sonorous Osmin, who plumbed the depths (low D) of his role as well as anyone can, and entertained royally with his patter-like aria advocating torture of the prisoners.
   Klink as Belmonte and tenor Matthew Garrett as Pedrillo fielded fresh, attractive voices and spirited acting. York was pure luxury casting, warm and collegial in his narration, flesh and blood as the Pasha. All, including a beaming Conlon, May Festival music director for 27 years, basked in a huge ovation from the audience.
   Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” was the festival’s finale on May 27, carrying forward Mozart’s 18th-century Enlightenment message with its vision of “eine neue Welt,” unspoiled and filled with promise.
   Chandler-Eteme, Aler and baritone Donnie Ray Albert created a rich vocal blend, as well as being distinctive soloists. Chandler-Eteme praised God with a lightly touched high C in “Mit Staunen sieht das Wunderwerk,” Albert surfed the waves nimbly in “Rollend in schäumenden Wellen,” and the two matched like turtle doves in their duets as Adam and Eve.
   Conlon achieved textures at once balanced, transparent and multi-hued. The sudden fortissimo of “Es war Licht” was not blinding, but shimmered with color, and “Die Himmel erzählen” was both exultant and elegant. The Chorus filled the hall with flora, fauna and songs of praise, and the CSO did its part with deft tone-painting
   As it has from “Cincinnati time immemorial,” the festival closed with a “Hallelujah” Chorus sing-along, tots in satin dresses presented bouquets to the soloists, and carnations were distributed to audience members as they left the hall.
(first published at www.musicalamerica.com)