Surround Yourself in Song



Mena joins a new collaborative team leading America’s premier annual choral festival featuring the renowned May Festival Chorus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra


CINCINNATI – Following an extensive, global search, the Cincinnati May Festival announced Juanjo Mena as the Principal Conductor for three years starting in the 2017-18 season. He will lead two performances at the 2018 May Festival and begins duties as the Principal Conductor Designate immediately.

The unanimous choice of the Festival’s Artistic Leadership Search Committee, Mr. Mena made his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) conducting debut in 2012 and, with his extraordinary artistic sensitivity and podium presence, immediately became both a musician and audience favorite. He has led the CSO in programs four out of the last five seasons including memorable concerts this past April featuring Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve with the May Festival Chorus, which was hailed as a “performance of mesmerizing power.”

“My lifelong connection to music started as a child,” said the Spanish-born Mena. “When I was just seven years old, a teacher encouraged me to sing the note that he played on his recorder, and after singing it in tune he invited me to sing in the school choir. From that experience grew a passion for choral music and the beautiful start to my musical journey. I am humbled and honored to be part of one of the world’s greatest choral traditions in the Cincinnati May Festival.”

“Juanjo was selected as the May Festival’s Principal Conductor because of his artistry, vision, and experience, along with his collaborative nature and approach,” said May Festival Board Member and Artistic Leadership Search Committee Chair Kelley Downing. “He has a strong track record with both orchestras and choruses, extensive experience with choral repertoire and a passion for the May Festival, its remarkable history and its role in the Greater Cincinnati community today.”

In lieu of a traditional music director model, moving forward the Festival is being led artistically by three positions. As Principal Conductor, Mr. Mena assumes a multi-year position responsible for ensuring that the Festival’s artistic potential is realized. A rotating Creative Partner is responsible each season for infusing the Festival with artistic innovation and imagination, and these two new artistic leadership positions are joined by the May Festival’s longtime Director of Choruses, Robert Porco, to plan future May Festival seasons.  This new model expands the Festival’s circle of artistic relationships to include collaborations with world-renowned guest conductors, composers, soloists and classical music innovators, enabling the May Festival to more fully explore the entire breadth of the choral repertoire, and deliver greater impact to its audiences and community. 

“Our charge from the Board of Directors was to develop the best artistic leadership model to fit a 21st century May Festival concept and advance the May Festival’s vision to be the most exciting force in the choral world,” said Ms. Downing. “This model brings together acclaimed artists and specialists from around the world to collaborate and reinforces the Festival’s role as a leader and catalyst in the production, presentation and promotion of great choral music. We’re confident this new model builds on the extraordinary success we had under our now Music Director Laureate, James Conlon.”

Mr. Conlon, who succeeded James Levine as May Festival Director in 1979, announced he was ending his music directorship last year and finished a remarkable 37-year tenure as at the conclusion of the 2016 Festival when he was named Music Director Laureate.

"Juanjo is a consummate artist who has a wonderful rapport with the dedicated singers who make up the May Festival Chorus,” said Director of Choruses Robert Porco. “I am thrilled to be working with him and look forward to many engaging collaborations.”

“The extraordinary quality of the May Festival Chorus is a testament to Robert Porco’s outstanding leadership,” said Mr. Mena. “That artistic relationship grows stronger every time we work together.”

“We’re confident the Festival will grow and flourish under the collective artistic leadership of Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena, Director of Choruses Robert Porco and a diverse array of rotating creative partners to come,” said May Festival Executive Director Steven Sunderman. “This is an exciting time in the remarkable history of the May Festival.

New Leadership at the Podium

A popular conductor among prestigious orchestras around the globe, Mr. Mena also serves as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. He previously served as Artistic Director of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, Chief Guest Conductor of the Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa and Principal Guest Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

He has collaborated with many prestigious orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Oslo Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra and the Orchestre National de France, among many others.

He has forged a special bond in Cincinnati, conducting performances in four out of the last five seasons. As a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra guest conductor, he’ll be leading the May Festival Chorus and the CSO in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis as part of the CSO’s subscription season on October 27 and 29 at the Taft Theatre.

“My experiences with the CSO and the May Festival Chorus have all been very special,” said Mr. Mena. “With the Orchestra, we could immediately make music together at a high level, and the May Festival Chorus amazed me from the first minute. I was so impressed with their vocal power, musicality and responsiveness.”

The May Festival’s Artistic Leadership Model

Principal Conductor

In the new artistic leadership model, the Principal Conductor serves as the chief conductor of the May Festival, leading many, but not all performances. Guest conductors will also continue to bring unique expertise. The Principal Conductor supports the development of the May Festival Chorus and plan compelling imaginative programs that grow the Festival and engage the community. This individual inspires greater and deeper levels of involvement throughout the community and ensures that the Festival’s artistic potential is realized. Juanjo Mena is now the Principal Conductor Designate and starts officially in the 2017-18 season. He will conduct two performances during the 2018 May Festival.

Creative Partner

The rotating Creative Partner role allows the May Festival to expand its relationships with a variety of collaborators and infuse the Festival with artistic innovation and imagination. In partnership with the programming team, this Creative Partner is charged with curating extraordinary performance experiences and ancillary events that build upon the unique festival atmosphere and spirit of innovation. The Creative Partner also assists the May Festival with community engagement activities throughout the year. In June, the Festival announced the first rotating Creative Partner, Gerard McBurney, for the 2017 Festival.

Director of Choruses

The Director of Choruses, a position that Robert Porco has held since 1989, will continue to develop the May Festival Chorus, be part of the creative planning team, engage the community and ensure that all of the Festival’s vocal ensembles perform at the highest level.

Artistic Leadership Search Committee

Chaired by May Festival Board Member Kelley Downing, the Artistic Leadership Search Committee members included: May Festival Board Chair Mark Holcomb; May Festival Board members Melanie Chavez, Mary Gimpel, Susan Laffoon, Shane Starkey and Ginger Warner; May Festival Chorus members Chris Canarie and Lauren Peter; staff members Trey Devey, Robert McGrath, Steven Sunderman and Isaac Thompson; community members Tim Maloney and Carole Rigaud; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians Matthew Lad and Patrick Schleker; and May Festival Director of Choruses Robert Porco.