Surround Yourself in Song

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Q&A with Juanjo Mena


by Diana M. Lara


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May Festival Magazine: What are the most important skills and lessons you have learned from working with choruses in your development as a conductor?
Juanjo Mena: The most important thing I have learned throughout my training and development has been to understand that the basis of our language is a continuous exchange of energy with the group that’s in front of us, and that sincere communication is the only way of achieving excellent results. The most wonderful compliment I have received, thanks to my background as a choirboy, was with the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway, when some musicians said to me after a rehearsal “Maestro, thank you for breathing with us!”

MFM: What criteria do you use for choosing repertoire?
JM: It depends greatly on the resources—the orchestra, soloists, chorus and the space available to us—but of course as a conductor, I don’t think just in practical terms. I won’t conduct a work if I feel it is not “my” repertoire, by which I mean I have nothing to bring to it musically. The performers, and often the audience, will know immediately if this isn’t the case.
The first thing I asked for when I was invited to be Principal Conductor was a list of the repertoire that had been performed at the Festival, not just during the past five years, but throughout its entire history. It was crucial for me to be able to fully understand the Festival’s identity, the themes that have run through it over the years, how it has changed and how I will develop it without it losing its identity as a unique and beloved cultural event.

I would like to continuously enhance and rejuvenate the Festival with exciting and attractive programs and projects that really engage with our community. There are many people throughout Greater Cincinnati who enjoy singing and, whether they are in a choir or other ensemble, or singing around the house or in the car, I would like to convince them that the May Festival is their home, too.

MFM: What was behind the decision to have a community chorus join the May Festival this year?
JM: I was clear from the onset that I wanted the May Festival to be a festival for everyone. I thought to myself, what could be more welcoming than inviting the Cincinnati community to sing with us? I was aware of the long-held May Festival tradition, in which Chorus and audience sing together the “Hallelujah!” Chorus from Handel’s Messiah at the end of the final performance of each Festival.

To develop this, we announced an open invitation to any member of the community to join the Community Chorus. We came together for a choral workshop in January, under the expert and inspirational leadership of the May Festival Chorus’s Director Robert Porco. Mr. Porco selected movements of Messiah to be rehearsed. More than 200 people came, many of whom had never sung in a choir before, and I am delighted that we now have a Community Chorus of 170 singers who have been rehearsing since January to prepare for the final concert of this year’s May Festival. There was no audition process—it was important to me that everyone was welcome, and I was mindful that an audition would have been a barrier to this. Community Chorus members range in age from 16 to 92.

MFM: Knowing what you know now, what one piece of advice would you offer to a young conductor starting out?
JM: That conducting is giving—an infinite source of giving, giving and giving…

MFM: What thoughts run through your mind after a performance?
JM: Hmmm, do you really want to know?! It’s typical of a conductor to be self-critical about the concert, thinking about what didn’t go so well, rather than focusing on what’s most important, which is ultimately the audience’s experience. And it’s very difficult to disconnect after a concert, especially as conductors are so often alone afterward. But if you have given everything you can in your power to make this concert a success, the music will thank you for it. You can try to have everything perfect, under control and structure, but as Oppenheim said, “The optimal state for art is disorder”; it’s in our capacity to manage this, and that will affect how successful the outcome is.