Illuminating Song: How Artwork Conveys May Festival Themes

by Franck Mercurio


To paraphrase Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena, the theme of this year’s May Festival centers on the ultimate existential question: “What happens after we die?” To address this, the Festival’s choirs and musicians will explore variations on this theme—from destiny and dying to immortality and the afterlife—all through music.

But how to communicate these musical explorations visually? This is the challenge that the May Festival faced when creating the graphic identity for the choral series. They wanted to find artwork that conveyed the emotion of each concert, but also reflected the overall themes of the Festival. To do this, they hired Cincinnati-based graphic designer Mandy Lehman.

“My inspirations for the artwork were the written descriptions of the choral works to be performed,” said Lehman. “Overall, the concert series, to me, had a darker theme. The images we chose seemed to fit the descriptions, which had a more mysterious side.”

The first concert of the Festival features the U.S. premiere of composer Mark Simpson’s The Immortal, which focuses on a dark and mysterious topic indeed: 19th-century séances and the texts recorded by the mediums who conducted them. To represent this piece, Lehman chose an illustration inspired by surrealist artist René Magritte’s paintings from the 1960s of clouds and men in bowler hats.

“The Magritte-like image is a different way to talk about the psyche,” explained Lehman. “I wanted to use this type of illustration to help people better imagine the [musical] works while reading about them.”

Lehman used a different psyche to depict the Silences Between, which features composer James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. Here, she chose a photo of sculptor Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss from 1793. Although not a Christian image, the subject centers on resurrection as death is overcome by a divine act of love.

“Here, I was trying to get to that feeling of a higher power without being too explicit with religious imagery,” said Lehman.

To represent the Games of Thrones concert, Lehman chose another surrealist image: a rabbit-headed Renaissance queen. This is very much in line with the current trend of “anthropomorphic art,” where contemporary artists create dream-like images of animal-headed humans, often clothed in historic costumes and set against backgrounds of sumptuously painted landscapes.

“The fable-like or fairytale-like imagery felt in line with this concert of cautionary tales,” said Lehman. “It reminds me of the characters in Alice in Wonderland.”

And, indeed, this artwork reflects the musical themes of Games of Thrones, which features choral works by Mahler, Boito and Mussorgsky, all of which warn of love for the throne and the sure weight of the crown.

Lehman used a more straightforward religious image to represent Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a work that was originally written for performance within a church. Here, an ecclesiastical painting depicts the saint as he is traditionally portrayed: one of the four Evangelists holding a book and pen and accompanied by an angel. The clouds at his feet give a heavenly context to the image, but also link back to the clouds in the Magritte-like illustration.

To connect all of these disparate images, Lehman stripped the images of color, rendering each in rich tones of black and white. She also overlaid each image with different variations of the same decorative pattern. The overall effect is one that reflects the artistic cohesiveness and emotional intensity of this year’s Festival.