How is the May Festival getting a makeover?

Longrunning choral festival returns after a year off.

Founded in 1873, the May Festival is being re-imagined for 2017.

Anchored by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the all-volunteer May Festival Chorus, the event is the oldest running choral festival in the Western Hemisphere and it’s held right here in southwest Ohio.

According to Matthew Swanson, community engagement coordinator and a former member of the chorus himself, the changes are mostly due to the stepping down last year of James Conlon, an award-winning international conductor who had directed the festival since 1979.

“We took the opportunity of a gap year to talk to new conductors,” Swanson said. “We wanted to enliven the festival, offer something very different from past years. We have a new creative partner, Gerard McBurney (a composer and former creative director for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). He and his video collaborator are going to incorporate projection, lighting and visible changes (to the Taft Theatre). It’s going to a very different, concertlike experience.

Furthermore, the festival this year will feature four conductors instead of just one, leading to a diverse repertoire that includes Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” Bach’s “B Minor Mass” and others.

“As far as pieces chosen, this year has been a mix of conductors making suggestions and we having something on our list that we wanted them to do,” Swanson said. “It’s wonderful having them engage like this.”

The festival’s multimedia approach, which will also include actors onstage speaking Shakespearean text during “The Midsummer Night’s Dream” performance, is part and parcel of keeping up with the times and trying to reach a broader audience.

“It gives the performance more context,” Swanson said. “It helps people understand the circumstance under which the pieces were written, the inspiration behind them. And with it being a choral festival, it helps to have both music and words.”

If Cincinnati seems an unusual location for such a prestigious classical music and choral festival, Swanson attributed it to the devotion of both the city and the festival’s participants.

“I think it’s the success of the music programs in Cincinnati,” he said. “The schools, churches, and community programs are the ones that teach young people about choral music. We have excellent managerial people who steward our finances from year to year. We have people who donate. But the bedrock is the festival chorus itself. It’s made up of volunteers who give their time all year.”

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How to go

What: The May Festival

When: 8 p.m. May 19-21 and 26-27

Where: Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St., Cincinnati

Cost: $42.25-$77.50

More info: 513-621-1919 or

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