Cincinnati’s Classical Music Organizations Host Landmark Anniversaries and New Initiatives in the Upcoming Season

Music Hall, home to many of Cincinnati’s Classical organizations, including the Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Symphony OrchestraPhoto: Hailey BollingerCincinnati breaks the mold as a midsize city with a world-class orchestra, opera company and chamber music organization. All three of which are gearing-up for anniversaries this 2019-2020 season as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra celebrates 125 years, the Cincinnati Opera observes its 100th anniversary and Chamber Music Cincinnati turns 90.

The programs for each company are genuine celebrations that offer exciting and varied programs that look forward while still commemorating the past. In addition to drawing in top-tier artists across the board, there are new formats, more intimate venues and concerted efforts to reflect Cincinnati’s cultural diversity both onstage and in the organizations themselves.

The CSO kicked off its anniversary earlier this month with “Look Around,” a multimedia production created by composer Shara Nova and poet Siri Imani that enveloped Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park in a blaze of sound and color with over 600 performers. 

Imani recited her powerful poem “Lost Generation,” a lament and manifesto for young people of color. If anyone was uncomfortable with Imani’s painful questions, that was the point, says CSO president Jonathan Martin.

“You have to be willing to start a conversation   about what we as a community are not doing (to address the inequities Imani raises),” he says. 

Looking forward, the CSO is delivering a season with plenty of standard Classical offerings (Beethoven’s 250th birthday is in 2020). But this is also the most inclusive season on record, reflecting music director Louis Langrée’s passionate advocacy for his adopted city. 

Guest conductors include Simone Young, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music alumna Xian Zhang, Thomas Wilkins and Damon Gupton; several world premieres are by women and an entire concert is devoted to African-American composers — and it’s not in February (Black History Month). Martin says that the CSO has programmed more music by underrepresented groups than any other major orchestra in the country — an initiative that will be a “benchmark moving forward.”

Though the official anniversary concert will be held in January, the celebration extends throughout the CSO’s season, opening Sept. 20 with Bryce Dessner’s “Concerto for Two Pianos,” performed by duo Katia and Marielle Labèque. 

There’s also an alternative to full orchestra concerts. The new CSO Proof series offers three intimate, informal multimedia events in Music Hall’s backstage area, which will feature dance, video, theater and performance art.

Chamber Music Cincinnati is one of the country’s oldest organizations devoted to music for soloists and small ensembles. Its 90th anniversary lineup has both brilliant young performers and seasoned veteran artists, all at the top of their game. All concerts are performed in Memorial Hall, an ideal venue for chamber music with terrific acoustics.

The season opener on Sept. 7 features a solo artist performing a marathon, or more accurately, a sonatathon. Renowned Canadian pianist and composer Stewart Goodyear makes his CMC debut playing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in chronological order over the course of one day, starting at 10 a.m. — with meal breaks. It’s a bold programming decision that runs counter to a trend for shorter concerts.

“No one on the board questioned the idea of an all-day program of this caliber,” says CMC’s program chair John Spencer. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event and a unique opportunity to celebrate our 90th birthday.” 

In October, the esteemed Emerson Quartet returns to the Queen City. In November, pianist Inon Barnatan and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner, make their CMC debuts. 

In 2020, the Canadian St. Lawrence String Quartet brings a program with insights into Haydn and Beethoven, the Czech Pavel Haas Quartet returns by popular demand and the season concludes with pianist Murray Perahia, one of the most sought-after pianists for over 40 years.

CMC has seen an increase in attendance over the past five years and not surprisingly — Spencer says that featuring young artists helps draw in younger audiences. 

“We approach every season with inclusion as a priority, and that includes the music being played,” he says. “Last season, Brooklyn Rider’s concert included five pieces composed by women, and we’re hoping to have a concert featuring more of their works. That’s true for composers of color, as well.”

Cincinnati Opera may turn 100 in June 2020, but the party starts early on Sept. 18 with a sold-out concert at the Cincinnati Zoo, the company’s home from 1920 to 1971. In October, tenor Stephen Costello, who sang at CO in 2011 and appears regularly at the Metropolitan Opera, gives a solo recital of bel canto arias at Memorial Hall. 

Artistic Director Evans Mirageas describes next year’s season as “looking back but mostly looking forward.” The Barber of Seville, which opens the 2020 anniversary season next summer, and Aida were both performed in the company’s first Cincinnati Zoo seasons; Dvořàk’s fairy-tale tragedy Rusalka makes its company debut; and two world premieres continue CO’s commitment to new works that speak to social issues. 

Castor and Patience, with a score by Gregory Spears (Fellow Travelers) and a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith, deals with an African-American family who inherit land in the American South, and all that it conveys.

Teenagers from WordPlay Cincy, the Music Resource Center and i.imagine tell their stories in Fierce, with a score by Cincinnati Jazz musician William Menefield and local author Sheila Williams.

“Our audiences trust us to have a balance of classic works and, at the same time, we’re on the cutting edge of keeping the art form vibrant with these new operas,” Mirageas says. “We’ve emerged as a leader in the creation and promotion of new works that draw new and diverse audiences, and we demonstrate that opera can engage social conversation about important issues.” 

One such work is Blind Injustice, an opera that premiered this summer to sold-out crowds. It is based on the true stories of wrongfully convicted prisoners who were exonerated with the help of the Ohio Innocence Project. Mirageas says the show’s run resulted in over 1,000 new advocates for the OIP. 

“We want to entertain,” he says, “but we also want to foster awareness.”

All three institutions — the CSO, CMC and CO — extend their reach into the community through diverse board representation, partnerships with schools, churches and young artists, and see inclusion as a moral necessity. 

 “We have to be relevant” says the CSO’s Martin. “And we have to continue conversations on how the arts can lift up the city.” 

For more info on each organization and their 2019-2020 seasons, visit cincinnatisymphony.org, cincinnatiopera.org and cincychamber.org.  

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