Cincinnati May Festival Announces Complete Details For 150th Anniversary Season

World premieres to include works by composers Julia Adolphe, Olivia Bennett,  James Lee III and James MacMillan.

By: Nov. 03, 2022

The Cincinnati May Festival has announced complete details for its 150th anniversary in 2023, including programs and featured soloists for performances in April and May 2023 and local artist and ensemble participants for its 25 for 25: A New Time for Choral Music commissioning project.

"Surely it is not possible that in 1873, when a group of visionaries came up with the idea of presenting choral music festivals in Cincinnati, that they could have imagined that this gesture could reach its 150th anniversary!" remarked Juanjo Mena, Principal Conductor for the May Festival. "I am very excited that we can now share with you the full details for the 150th anniversary Cincinnati May Festival."

Anchored by the May Festival Chorus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO), the May Festival will present four performances over two weekends in Music Hall (May 19, 20, 25 and 27, 2023).

On Friday, May 19, 2023, the May Festival Chorus and Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena will be joined by sopranos Berit Norbakken and Robin Johannsen, mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland, tenor Toby Spence, and bass Christian Immler for Johann Sebastian Bach's Magnificat, a piece which received its American premiere at the May Festival in 1875. Continuing the Festival's longstanding tradition of commissioning and premiering new music, this program will also include the world premieres of Timotheus, Bacchus and Cecilia by James MacMillan, former May Festival Creative Partner, and Breaths of Universal Longings by James Lee III, both May Festival commissions written for the May Festival Chorus and May Festival Youth Chorus for the anniversary season.

"I don't think there could be any better way of opening the 2023 Festival than with a concert featuring Bach's joyous Magnificat," said Mena. "Receiving its U.S. premiere at the 1875 May Festival, it unites us with all the generations of Cincinnatians that have experienced our wonderful Festival since its earliest years. Of course, we have so much else to offer you, and I am particularly looking forward to conducting the world premieres of James MacMillan's Timotheus, Bacchus and Cecilia and James Lee III's Breaths of Universal Longings, both commissioned by the May Festival to precede our performance of Bach's Magnificat. I also look forward to welcoming Marin Alsop to conduct works by Barber, Dett and Copland at the May Festival, and of course, to welcoming back James Conlon, as he takes to the podium for Mozart's Requiem."

Conductor Marin Alsop will make her May Festival debut on Saturday, May 20, 2023 in an all-American program that includes excerpts from R. Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses, which received its world premiere at the May Festival in 1937; Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1 in One Movement; Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha; and Aaron Copland's "The Promise of Living" from The Tender Land. Featured soloists for The Ordering of Moses will include soprano Laquita Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter, tenor Rodrick Dixon, and bass Nicholas Newton.

On Thursday, May 25, 2023, May Festival Music Director Laureate James Conlon, will lead a new work by composer Julia Adolphe, whose music Conlon has long championed. This will be Adolphe's third work written for the May Festival Chorus. The program will conclude with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem, which received its first May Festival performance in 1882; it was not performed again for a century until Conlon programmed it in 1982. Featured soloists for this season's performance will include soprano Erica Petrocelli, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, tenor Joshua Blue, and bass Michael Sumuel.

Mena returns to the podium for May Festival's grand finale on Saturday, May 27, 2023, leading the combined forces of five choruses, eight soloists, and the CSO in Gustav Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand. Continuing May Festival's legacy of performing Mahler symphonies, this presentation will join the ranks of Mahler's Symphony No. 3, which received its American premiere at the May Festival in 1914, and Mahler's Symphony No. 5 which received its American premiere with the CSO in 1905. Earlier this season, the May Festival Chorus performed Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with the CSO under the direction of Music Director Louis Langrée, marking the official full chorus, full orchestra, and full-capacity audience return to Music Hall.

"As Mahler said about his mighty Eighth Symphony, 'Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.' It is one of the largest scale works for orchestra and chorus to have been written; the vast forces that are required means that it is rarely performed," explained Mena.

A symphony with a substantial choral component, Mahler considered his Symphony of a Thousand "...a 'pure' symphony in which the most beautiful instrument in the world is given its true place." For this performance, the May Festival Chorus will be augmented by the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus directed by Lisa Wong; May Festival Youth Chorus directed by Matthew Swanson; Cincinnati Youth Choir directed by Robyn Lana; and Cincinnati Boychoir directed by Jason Holmes. Featured soloists will include sopranos Sara Wegener, Camilla Tilling and Lauren Snouffer, mezzo-sopranos Kate Lindsey and Briana Hunter, tenor Barry Banks, and baritone José Antonio López and bass Reginald Smith, Jr.

"Audiences will be in for a treat, hearing it in the magnificent acoustic of Music Hall, to close our 150th anniversary celebrations," said Mena. "We are lucky to be joined by simply the best line-ups of soloists. It is sure to be a special end to our 2023 Festival. I hope everyone can join me, the May Festival Chorus, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and our guest soloists, conductors and choruses as Music Hall will resound with the sound of the May Festival, celebrating 150 years of this incredible choral tradition!"

In addition to the Festival, the May Festival's traditional spring concert of sacred music will take place on Saturday, April 1, 2023 at Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church. Director of Choruses Robert Porco will lead the May Festival Chamber Choir and the CSO in George Frideric Handel's Dettingen Te Deum, the first work ever performed at a May Festival concert. Matthew Swanson will conduct the May Festival Youth Chorus in a program that includes the world premiere of a 25 for 25 commission from award-winning composer Olivia Bennett.

"The enthusiasm is high within the May Festival Chorus, the schedule is rich in activities, and we are very much looking forward to the 2023 May Festival," said Porco. "In October of 2021, after a 19-month pause due to Covid, our eagerly returning members were joined by 28 new singers. That momentum continued into this season with the addition of 24 new members, for this, our 150th Anniversary season. In total, we have 127 members in the Chorus this season, one of the largest in recent years. The May Festival Chorus is soaring! We have a lot to celebrate, and I hope to see everyone at our performances."

Subscriptions for the May Festival's 150th anniversary season are on sale now. Tickets to individual performances go on sale beginning March 1, 2023. Tickets may be purchased by visiting, calling the ticket office at 513.381.3300 or visiting the Music Hall Box Office at 1241 Elm Street, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.


In honor of the May Festival's commissioning legacy and in celebration of Cincinnati as one of America's choral epicenters, the May Festival has launched its 25 for 25: A New Time for Choral Music commissioning project, where composers from Luna Composition Lab will write 25 new choral works for local artist and choral ensembles across Greater Cincinnati.

Founded in 2016 by composers Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid, Luna Composition Lab provides mentorship, education, and resources for young female, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming composers ages 13-18. The only initiative of its kind in the United States, it has achieved national recognition as a program that not only celebrates underrepresented voices but also shapes music's future by providing a support system for continued success.

Participating local artist, ensembles and composers in the May Festival's 25 for 25: A New Time for Choral Music

The new works will be premiered by local choral ensembles throughout the region in Spring 2023; individual concert details are to be announced. In addition, the May Festival will present a free Community Choral Showcase on Sunday, March 19 at Christ Church Cathedral, which will include 21 of the commissioned pieces from the project. More information can be found at

"Commissions and premieres have been a consistent feature of the May Festival since its founding in 1873," said Swanson. "We look forward to these exciting, diverse, and unique new works, all written by exceptional composers from across the country and premiered by choral and vocal artists from our own community."

"The original May Festivals were comprised of local singing societies coming together to unite and share their unique talents to present choral music to the region," said Steven Sunderman, Executive Director of the May Festival. "With hundreds of choirs and tens of thousands of singers, Cincinnati remains the 'City that Sings,' and the May Festival is proud to celebrate its first 150 years in this great community with choirs and singers who continue to connect and inspire us with all of the dynamic and diverse cultural expressions choral music has to offer."


Juanjo Mena, Principal Conductor

Juanjo Mena began his conducting career in his native Spain as Artistic Director of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra in 1999. His uncommon talent was soon recognized internationally with the Bergen Philharmonic appointing him Principal Guest Conductor and the Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa Chief Guest Conductor. In 2011 he was named Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic which he then led for seven seasons, taking the orchestra on tours of Europe and Asia and conducting annual televised concerts at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms. His BBC tenure featured, notably, "thrilling" (The Guardian) performances of Bruckner Symphonies, a cycle of Schubert Symphonies, and set new standards for the interpretation of both well-known and less-performed Spanish and South American repertoire.

A sought-after guest conductor, Mena regularly works with the world's leading orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Montreal Symphony, NHK Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic and the Oslo Philharmonic, as well as all the major orchestras in his native Spain. He currently serves as Principal Conductor of the Cincinnati May Festival, the longest running choral festival in North America, where he has been expanding the scope of the legendary organization with new commissions and community engagement.

Robert Porco, Director of Choruses

Robert Porco has been recognized as one of the leading choral musicians in the U.S., and throughout his career he has been an active preparer and conductor of choral and orchestral works, including most of the major choral repertoire, as well as of opera. A highlight of his career was leading an Indiana University student choral and orchestral ensemble of 250 in a highly acclaimed performance of Leonard Bernstein's Mass as part of the Tanglewood Music Festival's celebration of the composer's 70th birthday. In 2011, Porco received Chorus America's "Michael Korn Founders Award for Development of the Professional Choral Art." In 2016, he led the May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah for Chorus America's National Conference.

Porco's conducting career has spanned geographic venues and has included performances in the Edinburgh Festival; Taipei, Taiwan; Lucerne, Switzerland; Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel; and Reykjavik, Iceland; and at the May Festival, Tanglewood Music Festival, Berkshire Music Festival, Blossom Festival and Grant Park Festival. He has been a regular guest conductor at the May Festival and with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and The Cleveland Orchestra, among others. The 2022 season is Robert Porco's 33rd as Director of Choruses.

Matthew Swanson, Associate Director of Choruses and May Festival Youth Chorus Director

Matthew Swanson is the Associate Director of Choruses and the Director of the Youth Chorus at the Cincinnati May Festival. He annually prepares the May Festival Chorus and Youth Chorus for performances with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops, and for their featured appearances at the May Festival.

Under his leadership, the May Festival has instituted an annual Youth Chorus commissioning project; the May Festival Community Chorus; numerous community choral collaborations; a free professional voice instruction program for the Chorus and Youth Chorus members; and free choral clinics for area schools.

In 2023, he leads "25 for 25", the May Festival's extensive community commissioning project. Beyond the May Festival, his affiliations have included the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center (New York), Schola Antiqua (Chicago), and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. Swanson leads the Xavier Choir at Xavier University and teaches in the Early Music Lab at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music (CCM).

"One of the Best Classical Music Festivals in the U.S. and Canada" (BBC Magazine, 2021 and 2022) and recognized as a leader in increasing diversity, equity, inclusion and access in the choral world (Chorus America, 2022), the Cincinnati May Festival is distinguished by its unique community-based structure

and standard of extraordinary artistic excellence. Founded in 1873, the annual May Festival is the oldest choral festival in the Western Hemisphere. Many important choral works have received their world and American premieres at the May Festival in the past 150 years, including Johann Sebastian Bach's Magnificat, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3, Benjamin Britten's Gloriana, Gian Carlo Menotti's The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi, and Robert Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses. Anchored by the May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the May Festival hosts an international array of guest artists in nine Dynamic Productions and is currently under the leadership of Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena and Director of Choruses Robert Porco.

The May Festival Chorus has earned national and international acclaim for its musicality and command of repertoire. Consisting of 120 avocational singers who collectively devote more than 45,000 hours in rehearsals and performances annually, the Chorus is the core artistic element of the Cincinnati May Festival and the official chorus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and Cincinnati Pops. The premier choral ensemble in Cincinnati, the May Festival Chorus has garnered national and international attention through numerous PBS broadcasts and award-winning recordings, many in collaboration with the CSO and Pops. Most recently, a live recording of Robert Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses featuring Music Director Laureate James Conlon conducting the Chorus and CSO at Carnegie Hall was released to critical acclaim in 2016 on Bridge Records, and in 2017, the Chorus re-released its popular a capella holiday recording Christmas with the May Festival Chorus on the Fanfare Cincinnati label. The Chorus is also featured on several Pops recordings, which have sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

The May Festival Youth Chorus connects, inspires, and educates young people through the study and performance of choral music, ranging from Medieval era to world-premiere contemporary commissions. Since its founding in 1987, the Youth Chorus has appeared annually at the May Festival, performing choral-orchestral works with the May Festival Chorus, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and internationally renowned conductors and soloists. Additionally, the Youth Chorus performs a stand alone concert series in collaboration with cultural institutions and organizations throughout Greater Cincinnati. The Youth Chorus has been featured on recordings with the Cincinnati Pops and in 2007 appeared on NPR's From the Top, the preeminent showcase for America's best young musicians. Alumni of the chorus have continued on as professional singers in Cincinnati and beyond.

With a legacy dating back 127 years, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is considered one of America's finest and most versatile ensembles. Led by Louis Langrée since 2013, the CSO's distinguished roster of past music directors includes Leopold Stokowski, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Reiner, Max Rudolf, Jesús López Cobos and Paavo Järvi. Matthias Pintscher is the Orchestra's Creative Partner, and previous artistic partners have included Lang Lang, Philip Glass, Branford Marsalis and Jennifer Higdon. The Orchestra also performs as the Cincinnati Pops, founded by Erich Kunzel in 1977 and currently led by John Morris Russell with Damon Gupton serving as Principal Guest Conductor. The CSO further elevates the city's vibrant arts scene by serving as the official orchestra for the Cincinnati May Festival, Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Ballet.

The CSO has long championed the composers and music of its time and has given historic American premieres by Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, William Grant Still and other prominent composers. It has also commissioned many works that ultimately became mainstays of the classical repertoire, including Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. The Orchestra continues to actively commission new work, amplifying new voices from a diverse array of backgrounds, most recently with the Fanfare Project, a series of solo instrument works written for CSO musicians to share musical reflections of time during the Covid pandemic.

Deeply committed to inclusion, relevance, and enhancing and expanding opportunities for the children of Greater Cincinnati, the Orchestra works to bring music education, in its many different forms, to as broad a public as possible. In 2020, the CSO was one of the first American orchestras to create a Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer position to ensure the absorption of best DE&I practices into every facet of the organization. The CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship, a nationally recognized program in partnership with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, provides a graduate degree-level education with performance and professional development opportunities for extraordinary young string players from populations historically underrepresented in American orchestras. The CSO is also an incubator for and partner to NIMAN, a consortium of American orchestras, professional musicians and educators established to address the lack of racial equity in the classical music field by aligning resources and collaborating to strengthen the trajectory of classical instrumentalists of color at all stages of their pre-careers.