A standing ovation and a hail of applause greeted James Conlon as he walked out on the Music Hall stage May 28– before he conducted a single note.
It was his final concert as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival, ending an extraordinary 37 years in the post (he has been named music director laureate).
And what an evening it was, as he led the May Festival Chorus (Robert Porco, director), the Cincinnati Childrens Choir (Robyn Lana director), the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and five distinguished soloists in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”
“I chose ‘Elijah,’ said Conlon, “because it, for me more than any other, represents the tradition of May Festival from its inception. It was there at the first Festival. And throughout its history ‘Elijah’ has been a constant. It represents the community of musicians: orchestra, chorus, soloists, spiritual or biblical subject. All of the forces have an equal share.”
All of the traditions of the 143-year-old Festival were observed: the herald trumpeters, dancing around the Maypole at intermission, tiny flower girls presenting bouquets to the soloists and Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, sung at the end, with the audience participating, led exuberantly by Conlon.
Soloists in the oratorio were bass-baritone Egils Silins as Elijah, with soprano Julianna di Giacomo, mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, bass-baritone Kristinn Sigmundsson and treble Abby Sherrard.
It began with Silins proclaiming “As God, the Lord of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew or rain these years, but according to my word.” To which the Chorus exclaimed, “Help Lord! Wilt Thou quite destroy us?”
The fast-moving work comprises recitatives, arias, ensembles and choruses. All were delivered to dramatic effect by the 114-voice May Festival Chorus. Conlon led with mastery and control throughout. Textures were transparent, ensemble was precise, and he gave clear expression to the text’s conflicting emotions, whether calm or impassioned. Balances between the Chorus and the orchestra were excellent.
To open, Elijah proclaimed “As God, the Lord of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew or rain these years, but according to my word,” to which the Chorus exclaimed “Help Lord! Wilt Thou quite destroy us?”
Tenor Griffey displayed a radiant voice in his aria “If with all your hearts ye truly seek me.” The contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal was filled with drama. The Chorus’ repeated “Hear and answer” was punctuated by silence (you could hear a pin drop in the hall). Elijah’s aria “Draw near, all ye people” was full and authoritative, with a gentle end.
The coming of the rains featured treble Abby Sherrard, singing sweetly from the balcony as she sees “a little cloud arising from the sea.” The Chorus brought part one to a close with a jubilant “Thanks be to God.”
Soprano Di Giacomo opened part two with a soaring “Hear ye Israel.” Mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy sang the hostile Jezebel (who condemns Elijah), Gitlis responding with Elijah’s beautiful aria “It is enough,” accompanied exquisitely by CSO principal cellist Ilya Finkelsteyn.
The 80-voice Children’s Chorus created a magical moment in “Lift up thine eyes,” sung offstage. Murphy as an angel answered reassuringly with the lovely aria “O rest in the Lord.”
The Chorus catalogued catastrophes in “Behold! God the Lord passed by,” ending gently with “in that still small voice came the Lord.”
The oratorio came to a joyous conclusion with “then shall your light break forth,” sung by the entire company.
Following a unanimous, heartfelt ovation, Conlon led the Chorus and audience in the traditional “Hallelujah” chorus.
Preceding the concert, representatives of the May Festival presented Conlon with a box made of wood from a rafter in Music Hall containing messages from members of the audience. He was also given the key to Music Hall (“What door does it open?” he said).
Both served as an expression of gratitude and affection for his priceless contribution to Cincinnati (a debt, of course, which can never be paid).
Will he return to Cincinnati? (Conlon is music director of the Los Angeles Opera and becomes principal conductor of the RAI Orchestra in Turin, Italy this year.)
Yes, he said. Not next year, but the year after.
Cincinnati waits with great anticipation.