Announcing Retirement of Executive Director Steven R. Sunderman

Sunderman to Conclude his 28-Year Tenure as Executive Director of the May Festival and 10-Year Tenure with the Vocal Arts Ensemble in July 2024

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Steven Sunderman
Steven Sunderman

CINCINNATI, OH (January 22, 2024)—Cincinnati May Festival has announced that Steven R. Sunderman will conclude his 28-year tenure as May Festival Executive Director and 10-year tenure with the Vocal Arts Ensemble after the upcoming May Festival on July 2, 2024. Sunderman is the longest-serving Executive Director in the May Festival’s 151-year history.

“Steven Sunderman’s contributions to the May Festival, as well as the Greater Cincinnati community, are innumerable,” said Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and May Festival President & CEO Jonathan Martin. “They have undoubtedly created a strong and healthy foundation for the future of choral music here in Cincinnati. We share our gratitude to Steven for his passion and dedication to the May Festival and for fostering a culture that will continue to grow and flourish for many generations to come.”

May Festival

Sunderman joined the staff of the CSO and May Festival in January 1986 and became Executive Director of the May Festival in 1996. During his 38-year career at the May Festival and CSO, the May Festival has enjoyed a financially sound history of 33 consecutive years of balanced budgets and financial metrics that are unsurpassed in the industry. He has grown the May Festival’s endowment from approximately $2 million to $26 million and more than tripled the annual budget from approximately $1 million to $3.55 million. The total cumulative earned and contributed revenue raised during his tenure totals $62.55 million.

“To have been a part of the incredible legacy of the May Festival is an absolute honor,” said May Festival Executive Director Steven Sunderman. “The May Festival is a Cincinnati treasure that has shaped and defined the vibrant cultural scene that the community enjoys today. It has remained relevant and endured the test of time for over 150 years, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to influence its trajectory and ensure its longevity for future generations of choral music lovers.” 

Sunderman propelled strategic plans that resulted in:

  • two artistic leadership model advancements for the May Festival, including the recently announced model to begin in 2024 with composer Julia Wolfe serving as the inaugural Festival Director
  • the appointment of Matthew Swanson as the May Festival’s next Director of Choruses beginning in the 2024-25 season
  • the May Festival’s first comprehensive diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) plan
  • the restructuring of the May Festival Board to a results-based model of governance and
  • drastically increased participation in music education in the region, including:
    • the creation of the May Festival MiNiS, a traveling singing program with original content for the youngest musicians in the region
    • the Cincinnati Choral Academy for singers in grades 3-6, a collaboration between the Cincinnati Youth Choir, Vocal Arts Ensemble, May Festival, and Cincinnati Public Schools to place afterschool choir programs in elementary schools where no such programming exists
    • the advancement of the May Festival Youth Chorus that aims to connect, inspire, and educate singers in grades 8-12 through 100% cost-free opportunities to study and perform choral music with musicians of the May Festival and CSO and
    • the May Festival Voice Lesson Program which provides members of the May Festival Chorus and Youth Chorus with access to free private voice lessons from highly qualified instructors in the Cincinnati region.

“Steven has played a critical role in ensuring the May Festival’s stability and reinvigorating the institution’s community impact through the years,” said May Festival Board Chair Christy Horan. “On behalf of the Board of Directors, we sincerely thank Steven for his incredible leadership and contributions to the May Festival and arts scene here in Cincinnati. His leadership has transformed the May Festival into a choral music force that has garnered national and global attention, and we are very grateful to have had Steven as an integral partner in realizing and developing the Festival’s new direction. We will miss his dynamic leadership and enthusiasm.”

Under Sunderman’s leadership, the May Festival and May Festival Chorus garnered national and global recognition through high-water mark performances, television broadcasts, recordings, livestreams, and more. The May Festival Chorus made four trips to Carnegie Hall to perform in critically acclaimed performances of:

  • Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1991 with the CSO conducted by then-CSO Music Director Jesús López Cobos as part of the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall
  • Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in 1995 with The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Robert Shaw, as part of Carnegie Hall’s two-year survey of Mahler’s symphonic works
  • Britten’s War Requiem in 2001 with the CSO conducted by then-May Festival Music Director James Conlon and
  • John AdamsHarmonium and R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses with the CSO conducted by Conlon.

Sunderman also led the May Festival through its 125th and 150th anniversary seasons, the latter culminating with Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand, featuring over 400 performers, including eight soloists, the May Festival Chorus, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, May Festival Youth Chorus, Cincinnati Boychoir, Cincinnati Youth Choir and the CSO.

In addition, the May Festival Chorus, featured in three national broadcasts, contributed to 17 CSO and Cincinnati Pops recordings, released a beloved holiday album and participated in five full-length digital Live from Music Hall concerts, reaching a global audience through livestreams. Sunderman was instrumental in bringing to Cincinnati the World Choir Games in 2012, the Chorus America national convention in 2016 and the American Choral Directors Association national conference in 2023 as well as achieving May Festival recognition as “One of the Best Classical Music Festivals in the USA and Canada” by BBC Music Magazine for three consecutive years in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

“We’ve shared hundreds of great performances together over the decades,” said May Festival Director of Choruses Robert Porco. “Steven’s love for what we do and his willingness to dream big have allowed us to remain a vital part of the arts in Cincinnati and abroad. We would not have been able to achieve all that we have without Steven’s enthusiasm for choral music and steady leadership over the years. He has been a wonderful colleague and a true friend of the Chorus. I wish him all the best in his retirement.”

Vocal Arts Ensemble

In 2014, the May Festival instituted a shared services agreement with Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble, and Sunderman assumed the title of Executive Director for VAE. Highlights from his tenure with VAE include:

  • the 2016 commission and world premiere performance of Kile Smith’s Canticle, a 65-minute work setting The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross
  • the subsequent recording of Canticle for global release in 2018, propelling Blanton Alspaugh to a 2020 Grammy nomination and win for Producer of the Year, Classical
  • record-breaking ticket sales for VAE in 2019 and
  • a momentous 40th anniversary in 2020.

During Sunderman’s tenure, VAE’s earned and contributed revenue doubled, allowing for improved singer pay and expanded artistic initiatives, such as the commission of a small ensemble arrangement of Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell's Sanctuary Road, which garnered the attention and support of the National Endowment of the Arts in 2023 and allows small ensembles everywhere the opportunity to perform the oratorio’s true but unheard stories from William Still’s book The Underground Railroad Records.

“Steven Sunderman has been the ultimate professional in implementing the collaboration between the Vocal Arts Ensemble and the May Festival,” said VAE Board Chair John Earls. “His innate ability to connect and work with people as well as his knowledge of the music art form made the transition seamless. Steven has made a positive impact on VAE during his tenure, and while he will be missed by all, we wish him the very best in the next chapter of his life.”

“Steven has been a positive force in the Cincinnati arts scene and embraced the idea that a community chorus – originating in the 19th century – could drive outsized community impact in the 21st century,” said President & CEO of ArtsWave Alecia Kintner. “He worked with Chorus America, ArtsWave and others to prove it. During his tenure, the May Festival used data to show it was a reason that chorus participants located and stayed in the Cincinnati region.”

Kintner continued, “Steven also envisioned and drove the paradigm of the Vocal Arts Ensemble and the May Festival sharing administrative services, providing significant benefits and a solid foundation for both organizations to grow. Both the May Festival and Vocal Arts Ensemble prove that, for audiences, the experience of choral music has profound impact on personal feelings of belonging, connection and curiosity. Not only do both organizations continue to bring our community together through song, they also continue to demonstrate the importance of cultural institutions and traditions in defining the spirit and potential of a great American city.”

The May Festival will form a committee to conduct a national search for the next May Festival and Vocal Arts Ensemble Executive Director.

Steven Sunderman
Steven Sunderman

Steven Sunderman is the Executive Director of the Cincinnati May Festival—recently hailed as “America’s Premier Choral Festival” by the Boston Herald and “One of the Best Classical Music Festival in the USA and Canada” by BBC Music Magazine for the third year in row. During his 38-year career at the May Festival and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the May Festival has enjoyed a financially sound history of 33 consecutive years of balanced budgets and financial metrics that are unsurpassed in the industry. Artistic highlights have included critically acclaimed performances, recordings, television broadcasts and appearances at Carnegie Hall as well as numerous educational projects and community initiatives. In 2014, the May Festival instituted a shared-services agreement with Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble and Mr. Sunderman assumed the title of Executive Director for that organization, as well. 

While a student at the University of Cincinnati (UC), he was one of only two dozen students to be accepted into the inaugural class to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Dramatic Performance at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music. He later received a BBA in Finance from the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati. Mr. Sunderman is a Board Member of the Friends of Music Hall, Board Secretary of the Greater Cincinnati Choral Consortium, a member of the Cincinnati Cultural Facilities Task Force and a member of Chorus America’s Leadership Development Forum. 

In 2014, Mr. Sunderman received the C-Suite Award from Lead Magazine and was named one of Cincinnati’s most influential leaders by Venue Magazine. In September 2015, Mr. Sunderman was named as one of Cincinnati’s Gentlemen of Style and Substance for his leadership, philanthropy and achievement in the Greater Cincinnati community.