Cincinnati’s jewel of a cultural tradition is winding down for the year.
The Cincinnati May Festival — a two-week choral celebration backed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra — ends May 28 with a nod to joy and freedom.
The nearly 150-year-old festival will also highlight the Cincinnati premiere of I have something to say by Jessie Montgomery, composer, violinist and acclaimed teacher.
Incorporating powerful words spoken by abolitionist Sojourner Truth and climate activist Greta Thunberg, I have something to say pays tribute to women who speak truth to power and challenges listeners to hear their messages.
“I like the idea of putting a political statement to music,” Montgomery said in a 2020 interview with Matthew Swanson, associate director of May Festival choirs. The play was originally scheduled for the 2020 season which was canceled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cathedral Choral Society of Washington, DC, joined the May Festival in commissioning the coin commemorating the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. This is Montgomery’s first composition for large orchestra and choir.
In a Zoom interview with CityBeat, Montgomery says that connecting the past and the present was a way of projecting into the future. But while researching Sojourner Truth, Montgomery made a startling discovery.
On May 29, 1851, Sojourner Truth appeared at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron. She gave a speech known as “I am not a woman,” but Montgomery says the words most people highlight and attribute to the truth weren’t actually those of the abolitionist, according to some sources. The popular version was published twelve years later by a white abolitionist who not only rewrote the speech but also rendered it into a Southern dialect.
For her composition, Montgomery says she chose the actual words that Truth had approved for publication in 1851. Montgomery also includes reflections from Thunberg, who spoke of the future in an unrestricted speech at the United Nations Summit on the 2019 climate action.
“I knew I wanted a young woman’s voice to be juxtaposed with Sojourner Truth’s and I kept coming back to Greta Thunberg’s speech,” Montgomery said.
To create the text, Montgomery turned to her mother Robbie McCauley, a distinguished performance artist, writer and director.
“I look a lot like Jessie. I read, listen to and reinterpret texts around scenes that interest me, ”explains McCauley in the 2020 interview with Swanson. “With Sojourner Truth, I went back to that line, ‘I have something to say,’ that’s what she actually said.”
“I asked Greta to say the same thing,” McCauley continues in this interview. “So it shows two different generations of women opening up space for women who have something to say on vital matters.”
Montgomery says she and McCauley discussed this scenario and how Truth and Thunberg could speak across generations, with McCauley envisioning a public setting that would become a courtroom. For Montgomery, it was especially vital and personal to have a children’s choir sing about hopes for the future.
In her younger years, Montgomery sang in the New York City Children’s Chorus, and although she chose to pursue violin rather than voice, she says she has a soft spot for children’s ensembles. The May Festival Youth Chorus takes on the children’s choir parts, and Montgomery acknowledges that there will be some adjustments to the original writing for the children’s choir, but the voices will be young.
I have something to say opens with an orchestral improvisation that Montgomery describes as an aural representation of a courtroom or public gathering place.
“There’s the sounds of shuffling feet, crumpling papers, a hammer, even fingers tapping on a keyboard,” she said.
She adds that it is clearly theatrical and even destabilizing for an audience that expects clearly defined musical entry points.
Audiences will hear Truth and Thunberg sing the same melody, an effect that Montgomery says creates a unified outlook and relationship between the two women. Their messages are reinforced by the large choir repeating their words. The children’s choir appears halfway through, ad-libbing and improvising until they sing together.
I have something to say premiered in March at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. May Festival principal conductor Juanjo Mena said the piece is full of “beautiful things, with wonderful sounds for choir and orchestra.” He hears the children’s choir as central to the piece “and rightly so”.
“It’s so important that they’re the ones taking center stage at this point, they’re the ones now thinking about the future of our planet,” Mena says.
Mena adds that the experience will be very different from the representation at the National Cathedral.
“Our audience will [experience] a full orchestra, the full May Festival Chorus, and the May Festival Youth Chorus in Music Hall, which is much larger and has different acoustics than the National Cathedral,” Mena explains.
Montgomery says she can’t wait to hear her piece in a large space and performed by a full orchestra and choir. “You can’t ignore a giant choir singing these words!” she says.
Montgomery is working for the first time with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO), although she made her debut as a composer when the CSO opened its 2020-2021 season with Banner, its acclaimed rendition of the national anthem for quartet string and string orchestra.
“The CSO played it so hugely,” she says.
Montgomery and Mena agree that I have something to say has more urgency and relevance today.
“Greta Thunberg has captured the attention of young people who are committed to caring for our beautiful planet,” says Mena. “I love her words alongside those of Sojourner Truth. We still have so much to do for equality, for women’s rights, for the rights of people of color.
Montgomery acknowledges that major changes face even more difficult obstacles. “For the good of humanity and the planet, this message is even more present,” she says.
Sadly, McCauley never heard the finished work, dying on May 20, 2021. His daughter calls the text “a microcosm of his aesthetic,” weaving historical events into a semi-fictional setting to challenge the listening public.
“It’s really powerful, especially now. It will be so reaffirming to finally hear it,” Montgomery says.
I Have Something to Say is the final performance of the Cincinnati May Festival. 7:30 p.m. May 28. Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. Information: cincinnatisymphony.org.
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