Sunday, May 16, 1999

Conlon's attack galvanizes May Festival's opening night

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cheers boomed through Music Hall at the conclusion of the Cincinnati May Festival's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, Friday night. It was an auspicious opening to the May Festival's Music Hall season, which is observing James Conlon's 20th anniversary as music director.

        Mr. Conlon conducted his massive forces with the same gripping intensity that he had shown in Thursday's special concert in Isaac M. Wise Temple. It was one of his most inspired performances here in recent memory, and the orchestra musicians responded to his direction with exceptional playing.

        Mahler's sprawling, 85-minute work is a universe of grief and reaffirmation. It begins with a funeral march, then travels through past reflections, the radiant Wunderhorn song “Urlicht” (Primeval Light), and finally erupts into the Day of Judgment, with a choral setting of Klopstock's “Resurrection Ode” combined with Mahler's own verses.

        Part of the experience was the spectacle of the May Festival Chorus, swelled to about 225 with the Chorus Alumni, and arrayed on new risers. The augmented orchestra was in front, including expanded percussion and organ, with soloists Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano, and Benita Valente, soprano, seated behind the second violins.

        Leading without a score, Mr. Conlon and his crisp attack set the tone for a vigorous reading. The first movement was weighty and biting, with exceptional control of mood and well- judged tempos. The andante was a smiling contrast; the conductor brought out the irony of the scherzo, and a bit of Eastern-European soul as well.

        The “Urlicht” was beautifully sung by Ms. Quivar, who projected warmth and rich expression, and Ms. Valente soared through the choral texture with a radiant tone.

        The finale, a universe in itself, was both powerful and meticulous, with Mr. Conlon leading a vivid and detailed reading, enhanced by breathtaking choral textures and superb orchestral soloists.

        In keeping with Mr. Conlon's theme, a tribute to the 20th century, the program opened with works by American composers Charles Ives (a cacophonous They Are There) and Earl Kim (Where Grief Slumbers).

        Ms. Valente was soloist in Mr. Kim's introspective work for strings and harp. Her voice was lovely, pure and exquisitely controlled, and she articulated the evocative text by Apollinaire and Rimbaud with wonderful expression. The audience of 2,553 responded warmly; she pulled up Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra harpist Gillian Benet Sella for a well-deserved bow.

        The evening included the traditions that make the May Festival so unique, from the flower-bedecked hall to three little girls (Luisa Conlon, Katherine Donovan and Alexandra Heekin) presenting bouquets to the soloists.

        There was also a bit of pomp with representatives from the state and Hamilton County reading proclamations, and Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls presented Mr. Conlon with the key to the city.

Conlon enriches Zemlinsky's music
- Conlon's attack galvanizes May Festival's opening night

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