James Levine to return to May Festival for Juanjo Mena’s first season

Juanjo Mena leads his first season as May Festival principal conductor this May.
James Levine. Photo courtesy of the Met Orchestra.

Maestro James Levine, a Cincinnati native, will return to conduct Verdi’s Requiem for the Cincinnati May Festival opening night in May, as part of principal conductor Juanjo Mena’s first season. It will be Levine’s his first appearance in Cincinnati’s Music Hall since he conducted at the festival in 2005.

In addition, the season will feature tributes to Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial is being observed around the world in 2018. The celebrated countertenor David Daniels, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, will be featured in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in one of the programs.

Mena’s debut festival, to take place May 18-26 in the newly renovated Music Hall, was announced on Monday via Facebook Live — a first for the festival. Dr. Rollo Dilworth, a Temple University conductor composer and choral music champion, will serve as Mena’s creative partner, as part of the festival’s new artistic model. The third member of the creative team is Robert Porco, longtime director of choruses.

Mena will lead two programs of the four-concert season.He is promising to bring a special treat from his native Basque Country of Spain: Otxote Txanbela — a traditional eight-man vocal ensemble. (Details will be announced.)

The centerpiece of the festival, of course, is the May Festival Chorus. Music Hall was built for the festival in 1878.

The season at a glance

May 18: May Festival Opening Night. James Levine, music director of the May Festival from 1974 to 1978, returns to conduct Verdi’s Requiem. The celebrated conductor, pianist and Walnut Hills High School grad is music director emeritus of the Metropolitan Opera, where he has led an unprecedented 2,500 performances of 85 different operas over his four-decade career. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.

His soloists will include soprano Michelle Bradley, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk and tenor Matthew Polenzani. The bass soloist will be announced at a later date.

May 19: Bernstein’s Mass. Robert Porco will lead a rare performance of the Mass. The enormous theater piece includes singers, dancers, full orchestra, a rock band, a marching band and more. Tenor Kevin Vortmann will perform the pivotal role of the Celebrant. The Cincinnati Children’s Choir also performs with the May Festival Chorus.

Bernstein was honorary May Festival music director in 1973. The only other performance of his Mass occurred in 1972.

May 25: Daphnis et Chloé. Juanjo Mena revisits Ravel’s full score from the ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, with which he made his Cincinnati Symphony debut in 2012. Also on the program is the North American premiere of Credo by James MacMillan. The Bernstein Centennial continues with Chichester Psalms, featuring countertenor (and CCM graduate) David Daniels. Gabrieli’s Magnificat a 33, which has never been performed at the May Festival, opens the program.

May 26: Handel’s Messiah. Juanjo Mena will lead the full oratorio with the Cincinnati Symphony, May Festival Chorus, vocal soloists, and the addition of a May Festival Community Choir, to perform selected movements. Soloists are soprano Robin Johannsen, countertenor David Daniels, tenor Barry Banks and baritone José Antonio López.

The popular concert at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington with the May Festival Youth Chorus and the Chamber Chorus will return — in April. The April 22 program, “Bernstein at the Basilica,” will include Bernstein’s Missa Brevis and works by Gabrieli and James MacMillan. Conducting will be Robert Porco and James Bagwell.

In addition, there will be a new community event on May 20 at Music Hall, called “Sing Hallelujah Cincinnati,” with singers from around the city, curated by Dr. Dilworth.

Subscriptions are on sale now: 513-381-3300 or mayfestival.com. Single tickets for individual performances go on sale at 10 a.m. on March 12, 2018.


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