May Festival stars in engaging choral evening at Music Hall

May Festival Bach
Louis Langrée leading the CSO, May Festival Chorus and soloists in Bach’s glorious Magnificat in D. Photo provided/Lee Snow

Audiences at Music Hall heard the May Festival Chorus in three different configurations for three different choral works.  And the acoustical differences between them were startling.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concluded its five-week rededication of the newly-renovated Music Hall on Saturday by showcasing the May Festival, for whom the hall was built. The engaging program (which repeated Sunday) looked back to music that graced the 1875 season: J.S. Bach’s Magnificat in D and Brahms’ little-known “Triumphlied.”

As the story goes, they were interrupted when a thunderstorm pounded the tin roof of Saengerhalle, spurring Reuben Springer to mount a campaign to build Music Hall.

The program also looked ahead by commissioning a stunning new a cappella choral work entitled “Equinox” by American composer Julia Adolphe. The world premiere was conducted by the May Festival’s director of choruses Robert Porco.

Each of the five concert weeks has allowed the performers – and the acousticians – to adjust to the new sound in the renovated space. It’s been a fascinating process to observe.

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View of the chorus arrayed on risers behind the orchestra for Bach’s Magnificat in D Major.

For J.S. Bach’s festive Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243, which opened the evening, a small, chamber-sized ensemble of Cincinnati Symphony musicians sat on the new thrust stage, with the chorus arrayed in a semi-circle on orchestra risers behind them.

On the podium, music director Louis Langrée allowed tempos to flow naturally. Each of its 12 movements unfolded with momentum, yet the conductor also allowed the music to convey the spirituality of the texts.

The orchestral introduction was inspired, not least for Bach’s brilliant writing for three trumpets, executed with flair by the CSO players. The orchestra, performing in historically informed style (using little vibrato in the strings) played wonderfully, although I wished for more string sound. It’s too bad that the small portative organ (Heather MacPhail) couldn’t be heard very well in the space.

But here’s the real conundrum. The choral sound was oddly muddy off the bat in the great chorus, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (My soul doth magnify the Lord). I wondered if the singers were having problems hearing each other.

Yet, near the work’s end, the fugue of “Sicut locutus est” (As He spoke to our fathers) flowed clearly. The chorus’ dazzling “Gloria Patri” brought the Magnificat to a strong finish.

Five excellent soloists sang with alluring expression through the many moods of this stunning work. One of the highlights was Chloé Briot’s soprano aria, accompanied by Dwight Parry’s melancholy oboe d’amore.

Baritone Matthew Brook navigated “Quia fecit mihi magna” (For he that is mighty) with ease, accompanied by a low continuo of cello, bass and organ. Bach’s inventiveness is on full display in this work, and another of its joys was the charming duo for flute (Randolph Bowman and Henrik Heide) with bass pizzicato (Owen Lee) accompanying Meg Bragle’s lovely alto aria.

Each of the soloists, who included soprano Leah Wool and tenor Thomas Cooley, articulated their solos admirably.

After intermission, Porco led a chamber ensemble of the May Festival Chorus in the premiere of Julia Adolphe’s “Equinox.”

May Festival Julia Adolphe
Rising American composer Julia Adolphe composed “Equinox” for the May Festival Chorus. Photo: Lee Snow

Adolphe crafted a vivid and evocative narrative to a text by American poet Elizabeth Alexander, which carried the listener breathtakingly from beginning to end. It started with the humorous imagery of bees flying in “loop-de-loops” and ended as a family awaited the death of a grandmother.

The choral voices took flight instantly in the opening verse about bees. As the singers “dive-bombed” through Adolphe’s witty counterpoint, the audience laughed out loud. In the next stanza, the bees died to a piercing cry for a soprano soloist and the inventive echoing of the words “venom” and “honey.”

As the poem’s imagery transitioned to the bedside vigil, Adolphe’s writing grew sparer. Yet there was also palpable warmth. The setting of the last words, “and she is breathing,” echoed the close harmonies and buzzing of the opening, this time with an autumnal quality. The effect was quite poignant.

Porco directed his singers with a sure hand and the new work was enthusiastically received. The composer was present to take several bows.

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The May Festival Chorus was at home in its usual place onstage at Music Hall.

The program concluded with Brahms’ “Triumphlied” (Hymn of triumph), a rarity not heard here since that early May Festival in 1875. Written in patriotic fervor over the unification of Germany under Bismarck and Wilhelm I, it is Brahms’ least-known and most under-appreciated choral work.

It was a treat to hear it. Brahms drew from Revelation 19 for his text. Its exhilarating quality  – with “hallelujahs” in each of its three movements- was undeniable.

For this arrangement, the chorus was on risers behind the proscenium arch, and the full orchestra was sprawled across the front. As a result, the ensemble of chorus and orchestra performed with much more focus and precision than it had in the previous configuration.

Langrée kept a careful balance between his forces, and led an inspired and unabashedly joyful performance. The chorus, again prepared by Porco, sang with expressive power and beauty, even in the work’s most complex moments. Baritone soloist Brook brought terrific character to his brief lines in the third movement.

Listeners were instantly on their feet for extended ovations.

A footnote about the chorus’ placement in this concert: It was interesting that the best configuration was likely the one the chorus has sung in since the renovation of 1895, which added the arch to Springer Auditorium. Saturday’s initial placement in front of the arch, albeit beautiful to behold, seemed to cause undesirable reflections and lack of clarity. The acoustical clouds above the stage were likely too high to help the singers focus their sound.

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2 thoughts on “May Festival stars in engaging choral evening at Music Hall

  1. I think the acoustics depend on where you were sitting. The Bach, from my location, dead center in the first row of the “terrace,” was terrific, and I thought it was the best configuration of the evening. The clarity of the voices n the different sections was the best I’ve ever heard in an MFC performance (I was a chorus member for 30 years, and know the piece well).

    The Brahms, sung from the risers behind the orchestra, was just plain loud and not much else. Any subtleties in that performance were covered by the orchestra. The chorus appeared to be shouting to be heard. Of course, the piece itself has few subtleties, and I can easily see why it hasn’t been performed again in the last 143 years. I hope it goes back to the library for a similar period before it’s done again.

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    • Thanks for your comment. Interesting! I had a feeling hat center-terrace would be ideal, but I have been unable to get a ticket there yet. In general, sitting center balcony has been the best in the past, but now I’m not so sure! I agree with you that it depends on where you sit — as it did in the past.

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