The May Festival Returns to Music Hall

I’ve got a real soft spot for Requiem Masses. I grew up going to Catholic schools and I studied classical vocal performance, including a year in music school in which singing in at least four…

I’ve got a real soft spot for Requiem Masses. I grew up going to Catholic schools and I studied classical vocal performance, including a year in music school in which singing in at least four different choruses was required. I’ve sang many a “Kyrie Eleison” in my lifetime, and although I am neither a practicing Catholic nor training to be a professional singer any longer, I’m still here for a bit of “Agnus Dei” when I can find it.

Verdi’s “Requiem” was completed in an act of frustration. He had tried to lead a collaborative project with some of his contemporaries to write a Mass to honor the life of Gioachino Rossini, and his contribution was what would become the final section of his work, “Libera Me.” To his dismay, however, the project fell apart shortly before the piece’s premiere. Musicians, right? (Kidding. Mostly.) So when another one of Verdi’s heroes, Allesandro Manzoni, passed away, he wasted no time in taking “Libera Me” back and writing a Requiem Mass for Manzoni by himself.

You can hear this frustration in the repeated “Dies Irae” section. Obviously, no Requiem Mass is going to be light and fluffy, but this “Day of Wrath” section has to be one of the most brutal themes in classical music that I’ve ever heard. That’s why it was perfectly delightful to see Cincinnati’s May Festival Chorus, which by all indications is made up of lovely people, deliver the force of an angry god exactly as it was meant to be delivered!

This year’s Cincinnati May Festival, fresh on its return to the newly renovated Music Hall, is led by Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena, and the May Festival Chorus, an assembly of 130 voices, was directed by Robert Porco. The performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” that I had the pleasure of attending on May 18 was led by the first female conductor to join the May Festival, guest conductor Eun Sun Kim. Eun Sun Kim’s energy was infectious. She led the orchestra and chorus through a multidimensional and dynamic performance with grace and gusto.

The May Festival Chorus and CSO were also joined by four vocal soloists: Michelle Bradley, a soprano who delivered an emotional performance, Ekaterina Semenchuk, a mezzo-soprano with a powerful presence, Bryan Hymel, a tenor with a beautiful voice, and John Relyea, a booming and dramatic bass. (Side note: I know this has little to do with the artists’ professional skill and I don’t want to reduce these amazing female artists to their appearance because it’s 2018 and we’re better than that, but I just have to mention that both Bradley and Polenzani looked amazing, and I left Music Hall determined to find a red jumpsuit with an attached cape like Bradley’s).

Guest conductor Eun Sun Kim

The orchestra expertly moved throughout the piece’s lightest sections as if they were being carried by the faintest breeze, and hit the hardest ones like a thousand hammers. During the “Dies Irae,” four trumpet players came to the gallery level (where I was seated) so they could effectively surround the room with the sounds of the trumpets of judgment. Fun!

If all of this sounds a bit intimidating, I suppose it was, and that is how it should be. But levity arrived during the applause at the end when four small children were sent out onstage to deliver flowers to the soloists, but couldn’t quite figure out which flowers were to be given to which performer, and quite a pint-sized kerfuffle was had.

I feel lucky to have had the chance to attend the opening of Cincinnati’s May Festival, and as always, I feel deeply lucky to live in a city with a dedication to the arts that may be bigger than the physical limits of the city itself. There is much more to come in this year’s May Festival, and I hope you get a chance to check some of it out.

Hilly Kenkel is a former vocal performance major and lifelong lover of music, political science nerd, podcast junkie, and Cincinnatian. She goes through sporadic periods of obsessive sourdough baking, weight lifting, distance running, and gardening.