At May Festival The Departed Ask, “Can We Talk?”

Juanjo Mena conducting the Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus in Mark Simpson’s ‘The Immortal.’
(Photos by CSO/Lee Snow)
By Janelle Gelfand

CINCINNATI – It’s safe to say that the opening concert of the Cincinnati May Festival on May 17 was like no other in its 146-year history of presenting choral masterpieces. The program’s centerpiece was the U.S. premiere of British composer Mark Simpson’s The Immortal, an oratorio for orchestra, baritone, chorus, and semi-chorus on the topic of communications from the dead.

It was commissioned by the Manchester International Festival and premiered there in 2015 by Juanjo Mena with the BBC Philharmonic. Mena also conducted its London premiere at the BBC Proms in 2017. Now in his second season as principal conductor of the storied May Festival, the Spanish conductor was on the podium for the third performance of The Immortal. 

The 30-year-old composer likened The Immortal to a “giant orchestral séance” in a preconcert Q&A. It was, indeed, otherworldly and thought-provoking for anyone who has ever wondered about the other side. Unfortunately, its louder sections overwhelmed the reconfigured Springer Auditorium, which reopened in October 2017 following an extensive $143 million renovation. The 35-minute work had stretches where the decibel levels were ear-splitting, and the sheer volume of sound obscured details in what is otherwise a fascinating score.

Simpson – who has a parallel career as a clarinetist – was inspired by John Gray’s The Immortalisation Commission, which describes the history of London’s Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882. It was there that Simpson and librettist Melanie Challenger went through myriad boxes of disjointed, bizarre fragments scribbled by mediums during the society’s séances to select their texts for the choruses.

In addition to Mark Simpson’s ‘The Immortal,’ the May Festival Chorus sang works by Brahms and Vaughan Williams.

The protagonist in Simpson’s oratorio is the Society’s founder, Frederic Myers, whose grief over the suicide of his childhood sweetheart, Annie, is believed to have inspired him to reach out to her through the paranormal. The composer described this character, wonderfully sung by baritone Rod Gilfry, as being in a state of “full-blown existential crisis.”

The forces onstage with Gilfry, who was lightly miked for the bigger moments, included the 120-voice May Festival Chorus, prepared by longtime director of choruses Robert Porco, and eight amplified singers. The members of the virtuoso vocal octet Roomful of Teeth stood on a platform between the chorus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Speakers were placed in the hall on all three levels for a surround-sound effect.

Simpson’s score called for a large array of percussion, such as mallet instruments, cymbals, Javanese gongs, bell plates, drums, timpani, congas, bongos, and five paint cans. Besides his colorful orchestration, one could detect influences of Ligeti as well as Penderecki in the more searing moments.

To mount such a work was an impressive feat for the choruses and orchestra, which performed remarkably under Mena’s baton. Organized in two parts, the oratorio opened with whispers, gasps, and groans as the vocal octet sang swooping, overlapping, disembodied phrases representing messages from those who have departed this earth. Their babbling was mostly unintelligible by design, with an occasional word or phrase – such as salva me – emerging from the dense textures. With each entrance of this spectral chorus, the music grew louder and more intense, conjuring a chaotic life after death – if there is one.

It was Gilfry’s declamatory phrases and grief-filled texts as Frederic that brought relief from the cacophony and structure to the piece. Singing consistently with burnished tone and effortless range, he powerfully conveyed all the pain, anguish, and utter despair of his character.

Musically, the softer moments proved to be the most striking. In the second part, ethereal voices sang a kind of love poem against orchestral strings, a poignant effect. Two sopranos from the octet performed otherworldly phrases as the long-lost Annie, followed by Gilfry’s devastating response, “My heart was crushed like ashes.” Amidst painfully loud, percussive crashes and shrieking voices came a sudden pianissimo Lacrimosa, a tonal, harmonized passage sung by high women’s voices. It was a stunning touch. The work subsided to a reflective close.

British composer Mark Simpson flanked by baritone Rod Gilfry, left, and conductor Juanjo Mena.

Mena was a committed leader, and the performing forces never wavered despite their challenges. During lengthy ovations from the audience, Simpson, Mena, Gilfry, and director of choruses Porco shared bows, and two little flower girls delivered bouquets to each of them, a longstanding tradition.

The first half of the program, which spotlighted the May Festival Chorus, hewed to Mena’s theme this season of exploring life after death. But if The Immortal was a bleak requiem for the dead, Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) was balm for the soul. The clarity of the German text was exceptional, and the singing by the volunteer chorus was as refined and heartfelt as I have ever heard. Mena’s view was warm and spacious.

The conductor paired the Brahms with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region, a setting of a poem, “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This was a ravishing performance, with gentle horn calls and sweeping climaxes, seamlessly led and beautifully shaped. The closing verse, an anthem set against the grandeur of brass with the words “we float, in time and space O soul…,” was prescient of the music that was to come later.

Three years ago, the board instituted a new leadership model with a team of artistic leaders and rotating creative directors rather than one music director. In its illustrious history, the Cincinnati May Festival has been led by notables including Theodore Thomas, Eugene Goossens, Leonard Bernstein (honorary), James Levine, and James Conlon.

The new vision for the two-week May Festival is being carried out by Mena with Porco, now in his 30th season. This year’s creative partners are Scottish composer James MacMillan, who conducted an inspiring performance of his own Seven Last Words from the Cross on May 18, and the Grammy Award-winning Roomful of Teeth.

The current season reveals an evolving May Festival, which Mena has said he would like to expand to be more festival-like and involve more communities. Extra activities included a free concert on May 19 featuring local choirs, curated by MacMillan, who also shared conducting duties. Conlon, who departed in 2016 after an unprecedented 37-year tenure, will return on May 24 for a program of Mahler, Boito, and Mussorgsky. On May 25, Mena will bring the festival to a close with a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. 

Janelle Gelfand is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area who was classical music critic and arts writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer for 26 years.  She is now a freelancer based in Cincinnati.