25 for 25 A New Time for Choral Music

by Wajeeh Khan

2023 marks the 150th anniversary of the May Festival, which has an extensive legacy of commissions and premieres. To honor this history, the May Festival embarked on a new endeavor: 25 for 25: A New Time for Choral Music, a choral commissioning project in collaboration with Luna Composition Lab, whose composers will be writing 25 new choral works for 25 choral ensembles throughout Greater Cincinnati.

Founded in 2016 by composers Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid, Luna Composition Lab provides mentorship and a plethora of educational and professional resources for female, nonbinary and gender non-conforming composers ages 13–18. Mazzoli says:

Ellen and I came together in early 2016. As women who have been in the field for a very long time, we’ve noticed very specific barriers to gender equality in the field [of music composition]. We’ve both been in the position of being the first woman whose music was performed by several orchestral and opera organizations. The field has a long way to go in including non-male compositional voices. A lack of role models and representation at the highest levels in academia and in concert halls throughout the world is one of the barriers to gender equality.

From top: Luna Composition Lab founders Missy Mazzoli (Credit: Caroline Tompkins) and Ellen Reid (Credit: James Matthew Daniel)

Luna Composition Lab was founded to address some of these barriers. The only initiative of its kind in the U.S., Luna Lab’s goal is to celebrate underrepresented voices and shape the future of music through a support system focused on continuing success. Luna Composition Lab provides for its fellows eight months of mentorship with acclaimed female and non-binary composers, opportunities to have original work workshopped, premiered and professionally recorded, and a culminating weeklong festival in New York City filled with masterclasses from world-renowned composers. Fellows also gain access to a strong and supportive network of professional performers, composers and other aspiring musicians.

The May Festival’s 25 for 25 Project aligns perfectly with the educational and professional goals of Luna Composition Lab. “We were thrilled to hear about the May Festival’s interest in us and were honored that they commissioned new choral works from 25 of our alumni composers,” said Executive Director Alyssa Kayser-Hirsh. “It was a no-brainer for us. It’s the largest commissioning initiative that Luna Lab has ever done,” said Reid. Mazzoli echoed this sentiment, stating, “A single commission like this can elevate a composer’s career. For most of our composers, this is their first professional commission. To say that their first commission is from the May Festival will be so huge for them.”

Above, from top: May Festival Youth Chorus led by Matthew Swanson, April 2022 (Credit: JP Leong); Northern Kentucky Community Chorus (Credit: AJ Waltz); and Classical Roots Community Choir, March 2019 (Credit: Mark Lyons).

The new works written by composers of Luna Composition Lab will be premiered by Greater Cincinnati choral ensembles in a community showcase March 19, 2023, and at several other local performances throughout the spring. The collaborative magnitude and the uniqueness of this event is particularly noteworthy: 25 composers and 25 choral ensembles, which range from after-school choirs of elementary students to university choirs and community choruses, performing 25 new works. The May Festival funded the compositions in their entirety and, for each Luna Lab fellow, the Festival is also funding composition lessons with mentor composers, travel to Cincinnati to allow composers and ensembles to engage with one another, and professional recordings. Participating ensembles and artists are also receiving a stipend to support their performances.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this commissioning project has been the mentorship, guidance and encouragement that Luna Composition Lab fellows have received from professional composers. As Ellen Reid stated, “Every composition, no matter what level it’s at, is always a learning experience. This will be a great professional learning experience for our fellows that will set them on a track to have long, meaningful and fruitful careers.”

One of the mentors who has been fostering these learning experiences is Julia Adolphe, a critically-acclaimed composer known for works such as her comic opera A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears and for her three pieces commissioned and premiered in Cincinnati: Sea Dream Elegies for Chorus, Oboe and Cello in May 2016 and Equinox (heard at the 2023 ACDA conference performances) in November 2017, both by the May Festival Chorus, and Paper Leaves on Fields of Clay in May 2022 by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Adolphe, who has faced barriers and inequities as both a student and as a professional, relished the opportunity to connect with students who are at such a critical point in their young careers. “The whole process is very remarkable. The fact that the May Festival is giving these students the opportunity to have a professional commission at such a young age, along with providing them with a support network, is a huge deal,” said Adolphe. “If it’s your first time writing for an ensemble, there can be a fear of crashing and burning. So, it’s really wonderful to have that support network and to have a chance to get feedback from professionals and be set up for success.”

One of the biggest aspects that attracted Adolphe to this commissioning initiative was the ability to provide students with opportunities and connections that she did not have.

“Reflecting back on my late teens and early 20s, one thing that stuck out to me was that I didn’t have any female or non-binary composer role models. There were a couple of these composers who I admired, but I did not have access to them. They were never a part of the faculty at the schools I went to. This project gives others an opportunity that I never had. In a way, as a mentor, I get to remember what it was like to be at the very beginning of my own career, with my eyes toward being a professional. I keep trying to remind my students that they’re very ahead of the game!”

Commissions and premieres have always been a feature of the May Festival, and they will remain so as the Festival continues to grow and innovate. “The May Festival was formed to unite locals in sharing their unique talents in choral music with the greater community,” said Steven Sunderman, Executive Director of the May Festival. “The May Festival is incredibly proud to celebrate its first 150 years in this outstanding community. We look forward to these diverse, exciting and inventive new works, written by exemplary composers and performed by our local choral and vocal artists. Through these amazing performances that connect and inspire all of us, Cincinnati will continue to remain The City That Sings.”

For more information on the 25 for 25: A New Time for Choral Music project, please visit mayfestival.com/25.