May Festival

Opening night of May Festival 2016/Photo by Mark Lyons

May Festival a must-see Cincinnati experience

  By John David Back The opening night for May Festival 2016, the last at Music Hall until the fall of 2017, was without a doubt a learning experience. For me, anyway. When I walked…


By John David Back

The opening night for May Festival 2016, the last at Music Hall until the fall of 2017, was without a doubt a learning experience. For me, anyway.

When I walked up the brick stairs and into the lobby of Music Hall, I had no expectations. The only word I recognized from the program was “Mozart.”

If you’ve never been to a concert at Music Hall, specifically to see the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra or Pops, it can be a little intimidating. More than the Aronoff or Playhouse, people get swanky for a night at the Hall. You’ll see everything from plaid suits to top hats. After about a minute, however, you realize no one cares your button down isn’t tucked in, and they are timing their white wine so they can get another one right before they sit down.

In fact, as if to prove me wrong about classical music audiences, this older gentleman behind me yelled between every piece, things like:
“FIGARO!” (after Figaro, like maybe the orchestra didn’t know that was the name of it)
“WE LOVE YOU!” (yes okay let’s pump the brakes)
“YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL!” (to the soloist Lisette Oropesa and she is.)
“MORE GIN!” (whoa buddy slow down now)

Once inside the auditorium you start to get a feel for the scale of things. Huge choir. Smaller-than-normal, but complete, orchestra. Large, digital supertitles screen above the stage (for the words in English). The director, the famous James Conlon, comes out and, before anything else, literally conducts the audience in the National Anthem. I got chills down my spine and blinked back tears. If they had PBR and nachos, I would have felt like this could be a Cyclones game. Gins & tonic and chocolate covered figs make a fine substitute, though.

The music, if you’re not familiar with Mozart, is not exactly Pit Bull. World-class musicians played the pieces, a world-class choir sang, and virtuoso soloists belted out Italian and Latin to blow your hair back. I was enthralled for the duration of the performance, and I’m pretty sure my IQ jumped 10 points. No wonder moms-to-be put classical music in headphones on their pregnant bellies.

To be completely honest, I was overwhelmed much of the time. I didn’t understand how the screen could show three words like “Lord, have mercy” and the soloist might sing for 12 minutes. How did she turn those words into 500 syllables? I realized after some time that the main focus isn’t the words, but the way the singers use their vocal cords as a perfectly tuned instrument. Cascading up and down and left and right and painting an exquisitely beautiful image.

And if you’re not convinced yet, here are more reasons you should make it to the May Festival:

  • Music Hall is about to close for a long while for renovations. If you want to see something, now is your chance.
  • It’s unlike anything you can possibly see all year long. It’s absolute beauty.
  • You can drink in the auditorium: this is a recurring theme in my reviews.
  • If you’re intimidated, it’s less than 2 hours.
  • The audience is really into it. The woman behind me singing along could easily have been on stage.
  • After 37 years, James Conlon is retiring as May Festival Music Director after this series. This is history!

If I could, I’d go to every performance of the five-night series. Worth every minute and every penny. You must go to something on or before May 28, which is your last chance to catch music at Music Hall for a long time.

Photo by Zackariah Cole //

John David Back is a Cincinnati native who lives and works in OTR. He’s an avid reader and a mediocre writer who loves the experience of art and beauty. Tell him what he should experience and send fan mail to