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May Festival: The Leaderboard


In its 147-year history, the May Festival has performed with hundreds of conductors, singers, and instrumentalists – and it owns an extensive performed repertoire. But which musicians, and what pieces of music, have appeared the most? Today, we explore the May Festival’s leaderboard: those collaborations which have lasted longest or occurred most frequently, as well as standard-setting works of music.

Naturally, the Festival’s longest-standing collaboration is with the city of Cincinnati, its musicians, and its music lovers – a relationship that began at the first May Festival in 1873 and continues today!

Just a five years later, the May Festival was held in newly-built Music Hall for the first time, and Music Hall has been the home of the May Festival ever since – 95 Festivals in all – with one exception: the 2017 May Festival was held at the Taft Theater due to the revitalization of Music Hall.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has appeared at every May Festival since 1906 – 82 consecutive Festivals. Prior to 1906, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra was the orchestra of the May Festival. Theodore Thomas presided as music director of the first sixteen May Festivals, or those held between 1873 and 1904. (The May Festival was held only every two, or sometimes three, years until 1967, when it became an annual event.)

The longest-serving conductor in the May Festival’s history is James Conlon, music director of the May Festival from 1979-2016. Including his appearances as guest conductor and music director laureate, Mr. Conlon has appeared at 39 May Festivals.

Current May Festival Director of Choruses Robert Porco holds the prize for the most Festivals as chorus director. Mr. Porco began his work with the May Festival Chorus in the fall of 1989; the current season marks his 31stAlfred Hartzel earns second prize in the category: he served as chorus master for 15 festivals, and assistant director for two, in the period from 1908-1944.

Tenor John Aler has sung at more May Festivals than any other soloist: 26 Festivals between 1979 and 2012. Mr. Aler performed a diverse repertoire ranging from Baroque classics to contemporary masterworks; the evangelist in Bach’s St Matthew Passion and the tenor soloist in Britten’s War Requiem are but two examples.

Soprano Benita Valente has appeared at more May Festivals than any other female soloist: 15 May Festival appearances between 1974 and 1999. Among many notable performances was the opening night of the 1979 May Festival, when Ms. Valente sang Mozart’s ebullient cantata for solo soprano, Exsultate, Jubilate in James Conlon’s first concert as May Festival music director.

The most-performed work in the May Festival’s history is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. It has appeared on 22 Festivals, including the first May Festival. In addition, the final movement was excerpted and performed in 1973 as part of a marathon concert celebrating the Festival’s 100th Anniversary. In a distant second is the Verdi Messa da Requiemwhich has been heard at twelve May Festivals; the first was in 1890.

Of course, many Festival attendees will assert that the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah would easily win the title. Though technically an excerpt, it certainly has a long history at the May Festival. “Hallelujah” appeared at the close of the first Festival in 1873, and again in 1890 and 1935, and appeared on every Festival between 1944 and 1970 and 1989-present. (Complete performances of Messiah are relatively rare: only seven, with the earliest in 1878.) 

The oldest piece of music performed at the May Festival is “Innsbruck, Ich muss dich lassen,” a polyphonic lied, or song, written ca. 1485-1490 by Heinrich Isaac. Runner-up prizes go to the sprightly “El Grillo” (The Cricket), an Italian madrigal of Josquin des Prez first published in 1505. Both were performed by the May Festival Youth Chorus under the direction of longtime Youth Chorus director James Bagwell.

The dedication of the volunteer singers has been a hallmark of the May Festival since its inception. Two singers in the present May Festival Chorus have exceptionally long tenures: the 2019-2020 season marks the 49th season of membership for Sally Vickery Harper, and the 48th season of membership for Karolyn L. Johnsen.