Conlon’s departure raises questions about May Festival’s future

James Conlon leading the May Festival chorus, soloists and the Cincinnati Symphony at Carnegie Hall last May
James Conlon leading the May Festival chorus, soloists and the Cincinnati Symphony at Carnegie Hall last May

One of the big stories in the arts world this week was the announcement that James Conlon will leave the Cincinnati May Festival after the 2016 season. I posed a few questions in a column today that I think are worth revisiting.

The first question has to do with Music Hall: After Conlon leads the “Hallelujah” Chorus for the last time in 2016 – his 37th season – Music Hall is expected to close its doors for about 18 months to undergo a massive renovation. The festival will be displaced for at least a year. Conlon said that the uncertainty of the revitalization plans factored into his decision.

Music Hall was built for the Cincinnati May Festival. Today, after years of finalizing a funding plan for what is expected to be a major project, we still do not know the construction plans for the hall — Springer Auditorium. The public is still waiting for the details — how many seats will be eliminated? Will the balconies be re-raked? Are they structurally sound? What will the hall look like? How far out will the stage be extended? How will the acoustics be affected? Whomever is selected to succeed Conlon will, I hope, be consulted about some of those decisions.

And here is my second question: A change in leadership is a cause for reflection in any organization. The May Festival has changed little over the years. Should it forge a new strategic plan? Should it make changes in how it presents itself as a two-week choral extravaganza? Will audiences keep coming if it doesn’t?

Cincinnati is a singing city, one with choral music at its roots. But like many classical music organizations, the festival has at times fought to remain relevant in a rapidly changing society. Some years, it has struggled with programming, competed for audience against an explosion of other entertainment offerings and been financially challenged.

conlon portraitOne can’t program “Carmina Burana” every year, and there were years when world premieres were a hard sell. Conlon believes that all arts groups have suffered from the elimination of music education in schools and an American society that has diminished its arts and culture.

“We’ve done our best at the May Festival. I believe that it will continue to be a big challenge to all classical institutions in America for some time to come. We have to roll up our sleeves and keep fighting away at it, the whole country,” he said last week.

Tell me what you think at or on this thread.



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