Cincinnati May Festival

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The Cincinnati May Festival is a two-week annual choral festival, held during the last two weekends in May in Cincinnati, Ohio, US.


The festival's roots go back to the 1840s, when Saengerfests were held in that city, bringing singers from all over the United States and abroad to perform large scale classical works of the day. A hall was built specifically for the annual event. The growth of the choral tradition in the midwest is largely due to this festival, a representation of the effects of the German immigration to the United States during this period.

By the 1870s, the Saengerfest was the most important festival in the Midwest. The most popular orchestral conductor of that era was Theodore Thomas, who would later found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He served as the first full music director of the May Music festival. The old Saengerfest hall was demolished and a new hall built in 1878, just in time for the 1878 May Festival. The Music Hall (Cincinnati) still stands today and is one of the oldest and largest concert halls in the US.

Thomas returned to Cincinnati for the festival between 1873 and 1904. Between 1905 and 1946, music directors of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (founded in 1895) also were engaged as music director of the biannual choral festival (Frank Van der Stucken, Ernst Kunwald, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Reiner, and Eugene Goosens held the reins during those years). Fritz Busch and Josef Krips led festivals between 1948 and 1960.

With the appointment of Max Rudolf as director of the festival in 1963, the festival became an annual event in 1967, as it is today. In the 1970s, the centennial of both the festival (1973) and Music Hall (1978) was celebrated with the tenures of Julius Rudel (director from 1971 to 1973) and James Levine (1974 to 1978). James Conlon became director in 1979.


In addition to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the main performing group of the May Festival is the May Festival Chorus. The all-volunteer MFC has been under the direction of Robert Porco since 1989. The MFC performs regularly with the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestras, singing at Music Hall (Cincinnati) as well as Riverbend Music Center. The MFC has garnered critical acclaim for their high level of performance.

In addition, in 1986 the May Festival Youth Chorus was formed. Made up of youth from area high-schools, the MFYC is conducted by James Bagwell and gives its members (who must audition competitively) the opportunity to perform challenging music well above the average high school level. The MFYC also has the opportunity to perform with the adult May Festival throughout the year, most notably during May Festival.

Often, the May Festival highlights a children's choir in one of their larger-scale productions (provided a part is written). In the beginning, the festival staff sent agents into the Cincinnati Public School system to locate young and talented singers. Over the past twenty years, the festival staff began selecting a local youth choir to feature in the concerts. Traditionally, the Cincinnati Children's Choir is selected.

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