Surround Yourself in Song

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Opening Night Review - May Festival 2017

by Mary Ellyn Hutton


There were no maypole dancers at Friday night’s opening of the 2017 Cincinnati May Festival at the Taft Theater (perhaps there was no room in the lobby of the Taft).

There were herald trumpeters, however, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by a superb conductor, Markus Stenz, in his May Festival debut, the May Festival Chorus, prepared by director of choruses Robert Porco and as fine a performance as one has come to expect from the 143-year-old festival (the oldest continuing choral festival in the western hemisphere).

The program contrasted the well known and the rarely performed, Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 9 and the first movement of German composer Walter Braunfels’ 1922 Te Deum.

Braunfels’ post-romantic work – not a May Festival premiere, by the way -- was not intended to be liturgical, but a prayer for the recovery of Germany after World War I (“The Great War”).

Soloists were soprano Carolyn Sampson and tenor Thomas Cooley, both of whom had to negotiate a wide vocal range. It opened with a big statement by the full orchestra, which included piano, two harps and harmonium, with a chorus of about 75.  The music fell back in volume on the “Sanctus,” then became heroic, with a big climax, on  “Rex Gloria.”

It ended on an exciting, triumphant note.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, performed many times by the CSO and at May Festivals, displayed remarkable transparency throughout, even in “big” moments.  Stenz led with precision, sensitivity and sweeping, often full-body gestures, drawing a superlative performance from the forces arrayed before him.

The opening of the Symphony was like a call from the distance.  Stenz, who conducted without a baton, let individual voices emerge clearly.  The second movement (molto vivace) had a “tiptoe” beginning.  A great buildup led into a lovely ensemble of winds and brass.

The lovely, contemplative Adagio had an easy, mellifluous flow, while the great buzz that opens the heaven-storming finale was followed by eloquent cellos and basses.  The woodwinds that vied with them led into the “Ode to Joy” theme sounded by soft cellos and basses.

Stenz’s whole body mirrored the music here, including a statement of the main theme, where his arms seemed to pull the sound from the air.  

Bass-baritone Eric Owens was commanding in his opening solo, followed by the resounding vocal quartet, made up of soprano Sampson, mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Cooley and Owens .

There was a long-held pause before the affecting woodwind variation and a bright, heroic solo by Cooley. 

The ending was truly transforming.  The Chorus sang with beauty and clarity, producing a magnificent sound before the vocal quartet led into the exuberant, drawn out, thrilling conclusion, which was followed by a roar from the crowd, a standing ovation and numerous bows by the soloists, Stenz and the entire company.

It was a Beethoven Ninth to be treasured, perhaps the finest this reviewer has ever heard.