Sunday, May 21, 2000

May Festival gets off to glorious start

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “Unlike many institutions in this country, we are entering our third century,” maestro James Conlon announced Friday night.

        In its first season of the 21st century, the Cincinnati May Festival (founded in 1873) is looking to its Germanic roots. May Festival traditions were firmly in place on opening night 2000: a nearly full house of 3,247 singing the national anthem, flowers in Music Hall's lobby, and two tiny flower girls (Audrey Hemmer and Ellen Sharp) delivering bouquets to the soloists at the conclusion.

        It was fitting that the May Festival Chorus should be highlighted in the festival's first program, which included Mozart's majestic C Minor Mass, K. 427, The Great. Throughout the evening, the chorus sounded polished and beautifully blended; under Robert Porco's direction, it seems to get better each year.

        One of Mozart's greatest liturgical works, the C Minor Mass is a study in contrasts, from the dark, choral Kyrie to the brilliant operatic arias assigned the soloists.

        Choral textures were superbly balanced, and Mr. Conlon encouraged vigorous, rhythmic playing in the reduced Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The chorus shone in the rejoicing Gloria and its concluding fugue, “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” and created a majestic sound in the Sanctus. The “Hosanna,” a fugue, was incisive and spirited.

        Soprano Jane Adler, mezzo Kristine Jepson, tenor John Aler and bass John Cheek formed a somewhat unbalanced quartet of soloists. Ms. Adler, who stepped in admirably to perform the same work in 1996, seemed below her best in this performance. The demanding runs, trills and leaps of the “Christe eleison” and the challenging “Et incarnatus est,” while musical, were labored.

        Ms. Jepson, who possesses a voice of rich presence, performed the coloratura aria “Laudamus te” with facility and expression, and added beauty to the ensembles. Mr. Aler and Mr. Cheek performed with vigor and articulation in the final quartet.

        In the first half, the May Festival Youth Chorus, James Bagwell, director, joined the chorus for a group of appealing shorter works. Handel's Zadok the Priest, composed for King George II's coronation, was a joyous opener, and the crisp attack of the orchestra matched the radiant singing.

        Mr. Conlon, who conducted the entire evening without a score, led two versions of Bach's Chorale from Cantata No. 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” in a revealing exercise about performance practice. The first, Bach's own, was briskly paced and light; the second, a romanticized arrangement, was the familiar “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.”

        Two Choruses from Schubert's Rosamunde, “Hirtenchor” (Chorus of Shepherds) and “Jagerchor” (Chorus of Hunters) were charming and buoyant. Beethoven's “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” was a stunning conclusion to the first half, with its seamless, sonorous textures in “Calm Sea” and the vivid and blustery “Prosperous Voyage.”

        Mr. Aler and pianist Thomas Muraco continued another May Festival tradition with a superb preconcert recital.


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