On the program were the Coronation Anthems, Nos. 1-3, by George Frideric Handel and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony.” It was music for royalty – the Coronation Anthems were commissioned for the coronation of King George II in 1727 -- and music for Everyman. Performing were the May Festival Chorus and Youth Chorus (over 143 voices total), the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and soloists Erin Wall, soprano, and Roderick Williams, baritone.
On the podium was director of choruses for the May Festival, Robert Porco.
It was an evening to celebrate Porco, now observing his 25th anniversary with the May Festival. His tenure has seen the all-volunteer Chorus develop into one of the finest community choruses anywhere, and it was a joy to relish both their sound and their sheer discipline under his direction at Saturday’s concert.
“Zadok the Priest,” the first of the Coronation Anthems, opened the concert. The spellbinding introduction by soft, rustling, CSO strings led to a full-voiced proclamation of the text by the Chorus that filled every crevice of the hall. (It is no wonder that this anthem has been sung at every royal coronation since it was written.) This was followed by “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened” in a more moderate tempo and “The King Shall Rejoice,” a frisky anthem taken at quite a clip. All were marked by splendid ensemble, clear diction and fine balances with the CSO.
A tribute to Porco and the unveiling of a newly commissioned portrait by Jim Effler took place after intermission. “The best call I ever made, was to seek out and bring Bob Porco to the May Festival,” said May Festival music director James Conlon. The audience heartily agreed, awarding Porco a moving tribute. The portrait will hang in the Music Hall foyer, Conlon said, near the statue of Theodore Thomas (founder of the May Festival).
The self-effacing Porco was presented with a separate, charcoal sketch of the portrait.
Not heard at the May Festival since 1929, Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony” comprised the second half of the concert. A massive (70-minute) work for full orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists (soprano and baritone), it uses an ocean voyage as a metaphor for the individual’s journey through life. Vaughan Williams’ texts come from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Soloists were soprano Wall and baritone Williams.
The work is in four movements, as in a traditional symphony, with a slow movement and a scherzo. Whitman’s verses dictate the form of each movement.
The first movement, “A Song for All Seas, All Ships,” opened in a heroic manner with a trumpet fanfare and a stirring declamation by the Chorus: “Behold the Sea Itself.” A recurring motif, it made one sit up and take notice. Movement two, “On the Beach at Night, Alone” for baritone Williams and the Chorus, was darker in tone.
The scherzo, “The Waves” for the Chorus alone, brimmed with excitement and color (including a piccolo for the “whistling winds”). “The Explorer,” which concluded the Symphony, began quietly, then grew joyous and expansive before ending quietly on a long low note (“O my brave soul, O farther, farther sail”). The Chorus handled their daunting role throughout the challenging work with exactitude and keen expression.
Encore (programmed) was "Rule Britannia!" by Thomas Arne, with the audience invited to sing along with the refrain.
The Festival continues at 8 p.m. tonight (May 23) with the annual concert at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky. Performing will be the May Festival Youth Chorus, May Festival Chamber Choir, soprano Wall and baritone Dashon Burton, led by James Bagwell and Porco, respectively. Details at www.mayfestival.com